Too Many Magpies (Salt, 2009)Elizabeth was born in South Wales and lives in Manchester. She is the prizewinning author of prose fiction and plays for radio and stage. Previously Salt published her collection of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World (2007) which was pronounced ‘a stunning debut collection’ (The Short Review). In October 2010 Salt will reissue her first, acclaimed novel The Birth Machine. She is also a performer and has been a teacher.
Thank you, Nuala! It's lovely to be here on your great blog.
Well, I wasn't actually setting out to explore PND as such. Certainly the narrator is filled with fears that surface strongly after she has her second baby. But the question the novel circles is, Are these fears real? The term Postnatal Depression, as she notes, implies that the fears are not indeed real (just the effect of hormonal surges), yet in fact she feels that she has always been on the brink of experiencing them and that her current condition and situation have merely brought them to the fore and opened her eyes. (And therefore the actual name itself is a threat, a denial of reality.) I guess for her and for me as the author the PND was a way into confronting fully that existential dread which otherwise we can manage to suppress.
As for the effect of PND or depression generally on one's ability to love one's family 'properly': well, as I understand it, so many women suffer PND that I hope it doesn't have too much effect on that! Also, I guess it depends what you mean by properly, as I think your inverted commas imply. I'd say that my narrator's fears for her children are in fact born of her passionate love for them, though of course the effect on her is that she fails on some of the things which are conventionally seen as signs of a mother's love: good housekeeping, for instance. And of course, one of the ironies of the novel is that her fears drive her to seek comfort in a way that is in danger of hurting her children by, as you say, taking her away from them. What was it like, exploring her feelings in fiction? Great, actually! Like most people I have had my own periods of depression or uncertainty, and there was a real cathartic satisfaction, indeed relish, for me in realizing (I hope!) its strange amorphous and generally unspoken quality in words.
You know, I've never thought of it like that - ie that the novel gives you greater freedom to 'let loose'. I tend to think of it as just as much of a discipline as a short story, but of a different kind: mainly, that it's a bigger thing to scale, with more complex structure and themes, but still requiring economy of description etc. I'm not much of a one for description for description's sake: the main way I use description, I think, is to build up a picture of the characters' psychological states through their perceptions. But then I guess in a bigger piece there's just more room for that to happen more often.
I really couldn't say - each has its own pleasures! It's lovely to be able to finish a piece quickly and to experience that high for the whole process. On the other hand, there's a sort of comfort-blanket thing about being semi-permanently wrapped in the world of a novel, don't you think?
I write full-time when I can, because I'm so one-track, and luckily I can at the moment because someone else is paying the household bills! I don't know about you, Nuala - and I know many writers manage it - but multi-tasking is just not something I can do when it comes to writing. I can only write well to my own satisfaction, I find, when I can become truly obsessed with what I'm working on and entirely adrift on its dream world. Once I'm like that (in the 'zone'), I find it really hard to concentrate on anything else - housework, shopping, paying bills, blogging! and especially anything that requires a different kind of thinking, such as management, organisation or intellectual analysis. If I have to break off to do something more analytically intellectual, then the spell is broken - pouf! - and I find it hard to get back into the world of whatever I'm writing - which can be lethal for something as long-term as a novel. It's as if I have to actually wrench a different head onto my shoulders - it really honestly feels like that: my brain feels kind of wrenched, and then I have to try to wrench it back again to the world of the story or novel, and I often don't succeed.
Sorry if that sounds overdramatic! Maybe it sounds self-indulgent too, and people could think that if I had to work I'd find a way to manage, but in fact I've had substantial periods when I have had to do other things, such as teaching or, at one time, editing and publishing a magazine, and have found then that I've not been able to write much successfully, although I've tried really hard - or not without a lot of stress.
So my ideal writing day, which I have at times in the past been able to put into practice, is to write from nine in the morning until about half-one, after which time I'm pretty done in and need to stretch and get some exercise and really need to GET OUT - as well as, most importantly, have some pondering time for the next day's writing bout. Well, I wish! Now I so often spend the rest of the day into the evening on the web doing all the things we writers need to do nowadays to market our books - and end up with nothing else done and the next day's writing unpondered, and feeling really frazzled! Blogging is a wonderful tool for writers, isn't it, but I don't think I'm the only writer to find that it can take up writing time and focus. My FictionBitch blog is the harder of my two blogs to maintain when I'm writing intensively, because it requires that different, analytical way of thinking. So I'm still working on finding a balance...!
I love Margaret Atwood for her political consciousness and her brilliance with creating vivid worlds. She's so versatile, too, and her points of view, voices and structures are nearly always flawless. And she moves me - the most important thing! Fay Weldon is a long-term influence: when I first read her I was simply blown away by her mischievous, subversive voice and her muscular can-do way of taking a story by the scruff of the neck and telling it in whole new ways. I love Anne Enright for her lyricism and irony, and Ali Smith for her rhythmic prose and her narrative innovation. Oh, I could go on...
Thanks so much for having me, Nuala. And I look forward with great pleasure to reading your own new novel, You, and hosting your visit with it to my own blog in July.