Your new novel is titled Still Life, can you tell us a little about the meaning behind this title and how it relates to the story?
In the book, one of my main protagonists Evelyn, an older art historian, is trying to write an introduction to a lecture she’s going to give on Still Life painting that would include the idea of female space. She writes about the ‘triviality’ of that domestic scene – triviality, in this case, meaning ordinary or commonplace – and how the power of the scene lies precisely in its ordinariness and familiarity because this is a world of habit; of cooking, of maintaining life, of feasting and togetherness. This is how I’ve always imagined the book. A story of the day-to-day routines of ordinary people. Of small rituals and the beautiful reliance on one another. And, of course, continuity.
The ‘still’ in the title can also be used as either adverb or adjective: referencing a quiet life, or life that continues come what may. Because ultimately it is a quiet story of life unfolding.
It’s an incredibly expansive novel, opening in the 1940s and spanning through to the 1980s, how did you decide on this time frame and what were the pros and cons of covering several decades?
Wartime was the starting point because that, realistically, was probably the only time a young working-class man would have had the opportunity to travel. Like Ulysses, my grandfather was a soldier in the Eighth Army and he too travelled from North Africa, up through Sicily and Italy. It was a golden period for him. His memories of Italy were vivid: Sunshine, beautiful women and tomatoes! As to the timeframe afterwards, I knew I wanted to write about the flood of 1966 but then it really became more of a question of where to stop the story. I spoke with an Italian friend and she said politics became very tricky in Italy come the 90’s, so stay clear! I decided to stop at 1980 when one of the characters would be approaching their 100th birthday.
The novel opens with Evelyn Skinner, a very progressive woman for the time, was this something you were keen on exploring?
Independent progressive women have always interested me. I’m interested in writing about people who live their lives away from the norm. And although Evelyn may have been unusual for her time, women like her did exist. I couldn’t have written her in any other way than the celebration of all she is.
I am showing how life can be in its acceptance of people, and consequently with such acceptance how good and kind and rich life is. This equation for living is incredibly simple. But governments prefer a divided population. Everything about this book is a challenge to conventional right-wing rhetoric and belief. It is about acceptance. About cherishing women and cherishing the earth. I wrote Still Life in the wake of the Brexit referendum when divisions were stoked by hate-fuelled rhetoric against Europe and, consequently, anyone different. This book is a reminder to breathe, an acknowledgement that the majority of people are good and kind and want a life that mirrors these qualities.
And in counterpoise, we have Ulysses Temper, how did he come about and develop as a character?
To start with, he is simply a soldier and one-time globemaker. A young man who has a disarming quality, non-judgemental and an easy acceptance of others. He has a close relationship with his Captain who has educated him about Italy and art and handed on to him his love of the country.
And then suddenly, it’s all taken away and war is over, and he returns to England, quiet, and with a hidden trauma.
I always wanted there to be a gentleness to Ulysses. As if he had witnessed something that most people hadn’t and therefore had a glimpse of the true meaning of life. His masculinity is soft, and he is a champion of women and girls, as are his friends Old Cress and Pete. I wanted the men in this book to be early Feminists. I wanted their conversations to be pro women, but unconsciously so. I wanted their feminine energy to infuse the world they inhabit on every level. Men protect women and converse with trees and learn poetry and the secrets of nature and they bring up a young girl child and she becomes the person she is supposed to be, and globes are made and borders and rightful names of countries are restored, and the earth becomes a place of wonderment, something to hold dear.
It’s been a strange twelve months for everyone. Did the pandemic impact on your writing/this novel at all?
When lockdown happened in March 2020, I was 18 months into writing Still Life and my delivery deadline was the end of August. So yes, it was a bit tricky. I was so naïve in those early days of what lockdown really meant. I even remember saying, Well I’ll go and write in a hotel then! I was supposed to go to Florence too in May of that year which of course was cancelled. My partner and I were locked down in a small studio apartment and the confines of bed and bedroom were where I created. But there was never true silence, and I missed that. Never just me and the story. I think had I not already been so invested in the book, writing would have been very difficult indeed.
Finally, E. M. Forster looms in the background of the novel, so if you could have an encounter (like Evelyn with Forster) with an author from the past, who would you like to meet and where?
Virginia Woolf in Cassis in the South of France.