On the 12th of March 2015, on his 48th birthday, Myriad Editions will publish Jonathan Kemp’s second novel, Ghosting. The author of London Triptych spent the last six years working on the story of Grace Wellbeck, a working class Mancunian woman, who is at a turn in her life. Grace (aged 64) embarks on an emotional journey of self-discovery after seeing what she thinks is the ghost of her first husband, Pete. This brings back memories of her past and allows her grief to resurface. Filtering through the emotions of the loss of her husband Pete and her daughter Hannah, she is faced with the question of her own sanity. The ghost turns out to be Luke, a young performance artist, who helps Grace to explore an entirely new world and range of possibilities. Once awakened, Grace reflects on her life and breaks out of the restraints imposed on her, which leads to a life-changing decision. The story is beautifully narrated and offers depths of emotion. The author tackles the subject of grief with compassion and tenderness. His characters are emotionally accessible, honest and vulnerable. The poetry of his language is enchanting.
I met with Jonathan Kemp and spoke about his new book and the themes of grief, madness and feminism and he shared insights about the genesis of the story and his creative process...
The book is about grief. I always thought grief was a very individual matter and yet you managed to identify certain elements that are both personal and universal at the same time. How did you decide what to focus on?
You are absolutely right. Grief is personal. Each grief is unique, but I do think that there are universals. I think as a writer, whatever situation you are dealing with, your job is to find the universal element to the specifics of that character in that time, in that place etc. etc. So whilst I don’t think you should labour the universal, I think once you’ve taken something as abstract as grief, it is something we will experience at some point in our life and in different ways. I was interested in exploring with this character what happens if you don’t grieve and you refuse to grieve or you’re not allowed to grieve… where does the grief go? At what point would it return?
Did you focus on any examples you had in real life?
Yeah, I did. The biggest grief I’ve had to deal with in my life was losing my sister when I was 25. She was 28. Whilst the specifics and circumstances of her death are nothing like the character of Hannah in Ghosting the emotional truth I think is something that I drew on in exploring Grace’s grief. Obviously this is very different, it’s not a brother for a sister, it’s a mother for her daughter, but the character of Grace has emerged from a very close friendship I have with my mother. It’s the only way I can describe my relationship with my mother. It’s not a parent and child relationship. It’s more of a friendship. And I was interested in exploring this woman, Grace, having experienced two very different griefs. The first is her husband, who dies when he is 27 and although she didn’t love him at the time he died - she was quite glad to see him die, because he was a violent alcoholic - I still wanted to explore that element of grief and compare and contrast it to the grief that she later experiences when she loses her daughter.
There is also an element in there that you tend to remember the good things rather than remember the bad things about people
Yeah, well, I think it depends on the nature of the relationship. With Hannah I was interested in exploring how Grace is grieving the loss of her daughter before her daughter is actually physically dead, because the nature of the relationship has changed so much that grief has entered into it. Grief can enter into relationships without death being present at all, I think. Things can die, relationships can die without the person dying and that was the case in both situations but in very different circumstances. It wasn’t that I set out to explore grief as a theme necessarily; I focused more on the narrative elements of the story. Because the story involved this woman losing two people very close to her emotionally, grief ultimately became one of the big subject matters in the book.
Each writer’s approach is different and even varies from book to book. Some have the book planned out from start to finish; some make things up as they go along, some focus on the research and then determine the story line. Which approach did you take for this book?
The seed of the whole novel came from the journey from Manchester to Malaysia that Grace takes in 1967 and this is based on a real journey that my mother took when I was eight weeks old. I was born in March ’67, my father had already been posted to Malaysia, he was in the Royal Air Force, and he had gone ahead so that she could have the child in England and then join him afterwards. At eight weeks old I was signed off by the midwife, my mum got on a plane with three small children and made this journey. It almost became this mythological journey as I was growing up and hearing my mother recount it as I got older, I became more fascinated in this story as a potential thing that I would write. I didn’t want to write a purely biographical or autobiographical piece, I am not interested in that in the slightest. I started to develop narrative elements around that, with that journey at the core. I thought what if she arrives and she’s told her husband is dead and then what if? I mean, those are the two words that start any writer off on a journey of imagination and exploration. What if? And then I thought, what if she is happy or pleased that he is dead, because by that point she no longer loves him. So then I developed this whole idea of him being an alcoholic and her being released by his death, released from one form of grief into another. Then I also wanted to include this other loss in her life. I felt quite cruel in a way, giving all this loss to this one character and it took me a long long time to figure out the specifics of the story as it finally settles. There was a whole strand in an early draft where Pete hadn’t died at all, he had survived and where the young man she keeps on seeing as a ghost actually turns out to be Pete’s child with another woman.
That’s what I wondered, if it was perhaps a lovechild.
That’s what it was, but it became too convoluted. I had this whole section set in the Malaysian jungle for the eight years that Pete lives in the jungle before he decides to make his journey back to the UK and it just didn’t work. I think each book is its own challenge and this book was more of a challenge than London Triptych. In London Triptych the challenge was to weave the three stories together, but the stories were more or less almost fully formed for me and the novel kind of slid out quite easily. This one was a classic case of difficult second novel. My agent said he has never worked with any writer who didn’t have problems with the second novel, so it’s almost like a rite of passage.
Like the second album, isn’t it?
Yes, you have been writing away with nobody paying any attention and suddenly the first book comes out and people are paying attention and you have to do it again.
Do you think there is a tendency to overthink it in a way?
I don’t think you can overthink it. You need to be as aware of what is going on as you possibly can be. I think the danger is probably in “under-thinking”, but that awareness also involves admitting defeat when something isn’t working and just biting in the bullet and having to do a whole load of work that you particularly don’t want to do, but you know the story needs it, if you are going to serve the story. The first drafts of this novel were all written from Grace’s point of view.
Why did you change the point of view into third person? Did you think you didn’t have enough distance from the character in first person?
It just didn’t work. I think a lot of it had to do with the way in which I wanted to write and the way in which I was allowed to write if I was going to be limited to Grace’s consciousness and point of view and character. I felt like the way I described it, she couldn’t tell her own story. I always shied away from third person, ‘because I just had it in my head that I couldn’t do third person. I was always much more attracted to first person, but I was pleasantly surprised when I did that shift and it wasn’t a question of going through the manuscript and changing “I” to “she”. Telling it in the third person changed everything. But it gave a perspective; it gave a narration, an external narration on her that still allowed for this very close attendance to what’s going on inside her.
Yes, because it’s still very intimate and you still have her stream of consciousness weaving through the entire novel, so in a way it becomes even stronger, because it really grips you in the moments that she has her own voice.
Yes, I think even though it’s third person there is a lot of her voice in there. I toyed with the idea of having shifting third person perspective, focusing on some of the other characters, but that didn’t work either. I thought: no, it’s her story; it’s just that she can’t tell it so it is like the narrator has to be on her shoulders. The narrator has to be kind of by her side all the time. She can’t just suddenly then leap into other characters or shift to a third person point of view that doesn’t include her.
But he (the narrator) is quite fond of her. He is very gentle with her.
Yeah, that was quite a challenge finding the right tone for the third person narration, because I wanted it to be somebody who had a lot of concern and care for her. I didn’t want it necessarily to be me, but I think it ultimately does become me; it ultimately does become your voice that’s telling the story, much more so than something like London Triptych, where I allowed the three characters to tell their own stories. Grace just couldn’t do it. Jack in London Triptych obviously is an uneducated working class lad who has these flights of lyricism in his first person narration that stretch credibility quite massively. With her I had a similar problem, but I didn’t feel that with Jack it was so much of a problem, I felt there was some kind of poetic license there that allowed Jack to go from a very cockney vernacular to these more poetic metaphorical heights. Grace just couldn’t do that. When it was in the first person, those metaphorical poetic flights just didn’t work in her voice so I had to rethink the entire book.
It is interesting when you say that it is kind of written in your own voice because reading it I have your voice in my head telling me the story, but I wondered whether that was maybe just because I heard you read extracts from it?
No, I think it’s just in there. It’s in the texture and the timbre of the prose. It’s something that I worked very hard at. My students’ jaws hit the floor when I tell them how any drafts I did of this.
How many drafts did you do?
I lost count but it must be beyond twenty-five drafts of literally going over and over and over…
Did you write the whole thing and then rewrite it or did you write and rewrite, write and rewrite?
I never started off a new document. I was always redrafting what was already there and there can be a danger in overworking something when you do that, but certainly towards the end it was a process of reducing, a process of elimination, and removal of stuff. I had to fight my own resistance to that process, because it’s hard to accept that you are just going to be taking away all the time, but once you see the benefits of that… because you spend the whole first half writing your book watching the word count go up and then with this one in particular - it’s only about 47 000 words - I was watching this reduction. With every draft, it was getting shorter and shorter and there is a panic, there, because you think: “oh my god, that’s not long enough.” We have this weird idea of how long the book should be and a book should be as long as it needs to be. Every story has its own demands in that respect. I am a huge fan of short prose, of short novels. I mean Carson McCullers is one of my favourite writers and her novels are very thin, but they are not slight. There are wonderful short books. The Great Gatsby is only 45,000 words. In that respect I have to give a lot of credit to the editors. I worked with three editors for the whole duration of this novel because I worked on this novel for about six years.
Is there not a feeling of liberation when you are able to sort of cut your novel into shreds?
Yes, there is. Ginsberg said: “Kill your darlings.” It’s hard, because you think: that’s a beautiful sentence and I want it to be in there, but then you think the story overall benefits from it not being there. I keep everything I take out and I have realised that in general I tend to cut out a third of the overall story. With this one I wrote twice as much as is in the book and it was an exercise in vigilance in keeping my eye on the story and fine-tuning the narrative. Once the narrative was in place it was kind of obvious what should and should not be there. I think I am always in danger of trying to get too much in there. I have to curb my philosophical flights of fancy!
The timeline is not a straight timeline and the way the information is fed does keep an interest but it also aids the journey that she takes. You feel almost like you are living through it yourself, so once you get to the end you really understand why you got to that end and not another. That must have been extremely hard to know when to feed the past, when to feed the present and when to feed her personal experiences and emotions and interlaying that with other people that influence her and her decisions as she goes along.
It was and I was working on that right until the last draft. It was never something that was in place from the get go. I always knew where the story would open and I knew where it would close, but in terms of the jolts back into the past, the flashbacks, I was figuring out those triggers and which memories would occur where, right up to the very end. Even in the final draft I was shifting things from chapter two to chapter eight and things like that, figuring out where exactly are the triggers, and where is the story from her past most effectively accessed for a reader.
Are you happy with the final draft?
Very, but as I say, I have to give the three editors a lot of credit for pushing me and pushing me and pushing me, beyond what I thought my own endurance was of being able to look at it again and read it again and think about it again. There were many times when I thought it was ready but it clearly wasn’t. The wonderful thing about a good editor is that they don’t offer creative solutions – that’s your job as a writer – rather they flag up what isn’t working and you have to find the solution to make it work.
Because there is always the risk of getting bored with your own story, once you overread it, you lose interest?
There is also the way in which you never know what is going to make it right until it’s right and then it just is. It’s an instinct you develop; hopefully you develop it the more you do it. I did get bored with it. I often say that working on a long project like a novel is a bit like a relationship. There are times where you can’t bear to look at it and you want to leave and walk away, but I never was able to just leave it alone, in terms of abandoning it. I knew that it was a story I wanted to tell and I just had to keep on striving to get it right. It was a very organic process. There were various drafts that had alternative plot elements. There was one draft where Linden is in the van with Grace and Luke when they drive up to Manchester. It meant that we lost sight of Grace for the whole section and I had to take Linden out. There is a lot to be said for a writer realising that you don’t have to tell everybody's story. In the same way, we can only have partial access into somebody’s life. We don’t need to know what happens to Linden and Luke beyond their encounter with Grace. We don’t need to know what happens to the tramp she has a conversation with on the park bench. People come in and out of our lives and in a novel people would come in and out of a character’s life.
Speaking of characters, there is a sense in the book that the world is split into three kinds of people: Firstly, those that are: open-minded, understanding and because of that perhaps too sensitive - they are the sufferers. Secondly, those that live to very clearly defined social standards with a restricted view of the world - they don’t understand people like Grace. Lastly, those that are just not very nice people and don’t particularly care about anything else but themselves. It seems the latter two are the happier and more successful ones.
…A bit like life
Yes. Do you see the world like that? In which category do you fall?
I identify with the more open-minded, less judgmental type of person. I think it’s important for writers not to be close-minded or judgmental in any way, so there probably are, less immediately apparent in the text, I hope, characters I am less fond of. Characters that are more affiliated to my world view I am fonder of. I get impatient with people that are less evolved, but they exist and we have to tolerate them. I tried very hard not for any form of judgment to come in. Characters can have judgments, like Grace is judgmental about Given and the way he is playing around with the emotions of Linden and Luke, but I would like to think that there is no authorial judgment on his behaviour. With Grace I was trying to explore somebody who is trying to push against the limitations that society has imposed on her. She has been swept along ever since she was a child. She has been swept along and restricted inside a role that isn’t necessarily of her choosing even though on her wedding day she is blissfully happy, because she has reached that pinnacle that is offered to her as a woman by society…you know, finding a man and getting a ring on your finger is supposed to be a bed of roses, but the reality for her is very different to the perceived future that she thinks is going to be offered to her.
Yes, there is a sense of rebellion when she does that, in her choice of husband…
Yes she is a strong creature that loses sight of who she is and starts to reconnect with her true self later in life, but doesn’t really know how to reconnect and how to deal with this reconnection
In the book Grace, suffers a psychotic episode and is institutionalised and again the whole encounter is very life-like, compared to people I know, who have gone through that experience, even the emotional journey. Then there is the other element that there is a lot of harshness and a lack of basic compassion and understanding for what it is she is going through, including the scene with her mother. In a way it rings very true to real life and maybe now it’s getting better, but I think there is still a very strong element of that perception. People don’t necessarily speak about mental illness, even though they say they do, because it’s fashionable to. Was this an intentional choice to thread through this aspect?
Definitely. I have always been fascinated with… for lack of a better word… madness, mental illness. It’s not very fashionable these days to think about it in these terms, but I always felt that it’s often, but not always - because one has to concede to the science of brain chemistry - but I often think that a lot of madness, historically, has been about people not fitting in, people not being obedient, people not conforming. I was always very convinced by that whole anti-psychiatry approach to madness, as offered through the work of Michel Foucault and R. D. Laing. Certainly with Grace that was going to be one element of her madness and it has played at women’s freedom for centuries. There is an incarceration of the unruly, of the disobedient, those unwilling or incapable or unable to fit in and conform and that’s something I have always been very interested in. I think this is something that has always been incredibly gendered as well. A big influence to an extent on this book itself has been Elaine Showalter’s Female Malady in which she explores how the psychiatric profession has been a way of making women conform or punishing them if they don’t conform. I wanted to explore that, but with Grace, her psychotic break is also linked to her grief and this sense that she is not allowed to grieve the way that she wants. Those restrictions of her grief are what send her over the edge. But it is also an accumulation of a lifetime of doing the right thing that just comes to a head.
And not seeing what she should have been seeing; she gets confronted with herself in a way.
Yes, I do think this is very much a feminist novel. I was very interested in exploring a woman’s experiences and situations, which was difficult, because as a male writer one feels: can I go there? Am I able to do that and what’s given me the permission to do that? Men have written about women for centuries, so I had to be sensitive to that and to be aware of the fact that I was going somewhere else with this book, from the territory I covered previously, and giving myself the permission to do that.
Because there are not enough strong female characters and I also think there is also this expectancy that if you have strong female characters, they have to be strong all the time and I don’t think there is a single women who actually wants to be strong. Life makes you strong because you have to be.
But also, what is strength? I think there is a lot of strength in vulnerability and accessing and allowing vulnerability. This is where, without generalising massively about gender, men can fall down, as they don’t see the strength required to be vulnerable. They think strength is a refusal of vulnerability and that has its own set of problems. This is something I explored in my non-fiction book The Penetrated Male, which was my PhD thesis. I think one of our jobs as writers is to test-drive those stereotypes, to find the real, specific details of difference between a single individual, a given individual, and the stereotypes that might exist around them in terms of gender, age class etc.
Because with Grace, in a way, the reason she hasn’t got her own voice for so many years, is because she never had it to begin with. So how do you find your own voice if you never knew it existed?
Yes, when you have never been given permission. I think there is a lot about being given permission. This is why it’s important that she meets Luke and Linden and they act as a catalyst for her, they open up a whole new vista of alternative ways of being for her that she hadn’t really been exposed to or considered. She is very much of that generation of both men and women who were just handed a script and performed a duty laid down by tradition: marriage, job, children, mortgage. Grace is based on my mother; even though she is her own fictional character of a working class woman whose aspirations were marriage and children. Feminism meant nothing to her. Feminism came and went and didn’t touch her in any way.
Let’s talk about symbolism in your novel and specifically the element of water as it threads through it. Grace is living on a boat and seems to be drifting in life rather than living. Then there is the moment in Malaysia on the beach by the sea, where she feels free for the first time. She kisses Pete for the first time on a boat in Blackpool and there are more examples. Was this intentional or did it just find its way into the novel without you thinking much of it?
I have a strange relationship with symbolism. I know some writers are very deliberate in their symbolism. I kind of let mine emerge subconsciously and I don’t notice it’s there until really late in the day. The water symbolism wasn’t something I intentionally put in there. The other symbolism in the book is flight. I knew that I wanted to continue to return to the natural world that surrounds us, but when I finished the book I realised that there were so many references not just to flights but also to birds, and not just the flights in the aeroplane. The birds weren’t intentional at all. When I read the final draft I realised there are so many occasions where she is noticing birds or where birds impact on her consciousness. In a way, the whole novel is about flight, taking flight. So once I noticed all the occurrences of birds in there I liked it. I think sometimes symbolism is just working at a deeper level than the writer is aware of.
Psychologically, you see, I thought the water was there to reinforce the image of her gradually drowning in her own grief?
Yes, possibly, but it wasn’t a conscious thing. If you think about it: water and air. The only way you will avoid drowning is developing flight. Those two strands of symbolism work quite well together, but again, it wasn’t intentional. It’s how the imagination works sometimes. Writing is taking place on another subconscious level to the story that you are trying to tell. I mean, the whole Icarus thing and Pete’s performance with the feathers was when I started making all those connections. Until you mentioned the water thing, I didn’t realise it was there. I think if you are too aware of it and too conscious of it, it can be overworked so I don’t really try to think about symbolism. I just allow the story to develop and they will be there. You discover them and unearth that.
I read a Guardian review of London Triptych in which it says: “An ambitious work in which Kemp aims to give a voice to the voiceless” and I think it’s just as true about this novel as it is about London Triptych. Do you consciously aim to give a voice to the voiceless? Is it something you regard as the duty of a writer?
Yes, I think so. I think duty might sound a bit too grand. It is certainly an interest. I do think the working class women of my mother’s generation were pretty much voiceless. It was like you got handed a script and this is what your life will be. Those are the things you will do; those are the poles around which your existence will be hung. It was a conscious decision to write this story in as much as I wanted to again take a voiceless character and attempt to give them a voice or at least attempt to help them find a voice.
There have been books written about that time and women but they are normally very heroic stories and most women didn’t have a heroic life in the sense of a public life, but it doesn’t make it less meaningful.
It was very important for me to end where it ended. I always knew that it will end how it ends. I don’t know if you picked up on this but I basically have stolen the ending from A Doll’s House. Ibsen’s play ends with the door slamming and we don’t know what’s going to happen to Nora and somebody actually wrote a sequel. A play: what happens to Nora after she has left. I kind of started to think what the modern day equivalent of that would be. It wouldn’t be enough for a young wife and mother to leave her husband and children in the way that Nora does. That was radical in those times, but what would be radical now is a woman in her sixties, who is very settled with a husband and a nice way of life but chooses to leave that.
Well, because you have the homeless guy as well and in a way he is a lot freer than she ever was in her life. In a way, for me the end is very sad, because she has to do that in order to be free and on the other hand you have those moments in life where this is exactly what you want to do, but you just don’t do it for whatever reason and it’s admirable that she does. Do you think that ultimately this is where we all end up eventually, that being the existential question of the novel?
I would never like to predict where we all will end up. We will all end up in a grave. That is about all I can predict. I wasn’t trying to say anything in a broader way. It was just the specifics of this character’s situation and maybe some readers will feel very frustrated. They will want to know what happens next, and maybe I will write a sequel after this book, but it was important that it was just a walk away which is also a walk into something, which is a complete unknown and I have no idea where she ends up beyond the final departure.
There is this element of letting go of everything, in a way it is just a symbol.
Yes, and is it bravery? Is it stupidity? I don’t know.
Some people will think she is absolutely insane, that she has gone completely mad
I wanted to leave it ambiguous, for it to be not clear. Could she be losing her mind in the end or could she be entering a phase of absolute clarity. Who knows? I don’t.
Maybe you’ll write it, but I kind of like not knowing. I loved reading London Triptych and I loved Ghosting. In each book (and actually in 26 as well) I found one particular moment, which haunts me. In that moment the character is extremely fragile, stripped down, vulnerable. It is very easy to identify with your characters on an emotional level, but those memorable moments make the stories stay with me long after I’ve read them. I wonder if you have moments in your books that have stayed with you more prominently than others?
Good question… reaching the end, that’s always a good moment. (Laughs). I don’t know if I do. I don’t think about them that much once they are done, but I am aware, having spoken to multiple readers, that they do and I have them reading other people’s novels.
There are moments that are important to me for that character, because that moment encapsulates perhaps what I was trying to express about that character. With Grace it’s stripping naked, scrabbling around in the flowerbeds and stuffing soil into her mouth. That was a very powerful image for me, for this woman. This kind of feral, crazy moment. My ex-partner is a performance artist and I was watching a performance that one of his friends did, where she stripped naked and scrubbed around in the corner of a back garden. They were having all these performances in a single house. It was just a group of performance artists doing performances for each other. I was the only one there, I think, who wasn’t a performer. It was a much younger woman than Grace, but it was really interesting seeing it acted out. It was almost as if there was a theme of madness that involved nakedness and soil eating and she looked very feral, that woman, scrabbling around like an animal in the dirt. I don’t think she actually ate it, but there was something very feral about it. It was very fascinating to see an image that had been in my head suddenly materialised. I had already written this scene and I was clear that this was what Grace’s breakdown entailed and what expression it took, because it’s almost like a return to the fundamentals: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, earth to earth kind of thing. Her eating the soil was always a very important image of her for me.