[Guest blogger John Kenworthy is author of the chilling new novel "The Missionary and the Brute", a thriller set in Tanzania, East Africa. Here he interviews author Sam Kirshaw about her novels ("The Cushion Effect" and "American Daughters") and her mechanics of writing. The interview will begin with some free association questions followed by more in depth questions. Kenworthy's previous books have included "The Hand Behind the Mouse: an intimate biography of Ub Iwerks" and "Bungee Jumping & Cocoons".]
The Free Association:
Harleys or Horses?
Fat man's gas-guzzling armchair on two wheels or Apollo's steeds? I think the answer is obvious. Horses.
Tents or Hotel Suites?
I think a lot of people see me as a pampered delicate English rose but there is a spine of steel that is not averse to roughing it in the bush, especially if there is a purpose to it. Both.
Italian or French cuisine?
I could live on a Mediterranean cuisine quite happily all my life. I find French reliance on heavy sauces and fatty meats undesirable although I love their bread. Italian.
Adele or Winehouse?
I have to say Amy Winehouse is overrated. She was loved by the press for her bad-girl image but the pure voice of Adele wins me over. Adele.
George Clooney or Antonio Banderas?
Smooth lover of beautiful Italian women inter alia or brooding Latino (and still boyish) looks and mystique. The choice between your godfather and your best friend's younger brother. Love flirting with them both. But neither are for me (pace Daniel Craig).
Missionary or Brute
Ah, John, a choice close to home. I have an iconoclast's virulent distaste of the hypocrite and have seen the damage Christian do-gooders can wreak on an innocent third world. Give me the Brute. At least I know where I stand with him.
Burgundy or Claret?
I am a great lover of the concept of terroire and what it does to the vine and the grape. Unfortunately the sense of sand and sea that is a subtle back taste of many clarets puts me off them (I suppose having been born on an English littoral does not pre-dispose me to think of it as sophisticated). I have spent some delightful trips to Burgundy exploring various vineyards from Chablis down to the south as far as Cluny. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir rule for me. Burgundy.
Elizabeth Taylor or Meryl Streep?
Easy. Never really rated Meryl Streep. From Butterfield 8 to Virginia Woolf Elizabeth reigns supreme. Taylor.
Lisbeth Salander or Carrie Bradshaw?
Lisbeth is too punk for my tastes and though very on trend in her time I found Carrie's inability to choose the right man irritating in the extreme. Her predilections are not mine. Neither. For a recent literary female character give me Benedicta Merlin anytime.
Manolo or Birkenstock?
Oh, really? Is that a choice? Do I look like someone who wears sandals? I hate them. Manolos. But flip-flops for the beach and real boots for the mountains.
Giorgio Armani or Karl Lagerfeld?
Despite the tremendous contribution of Lagerfeld to fashion I have loved Armani style from the early nineties onwards. Never fails. Armani.
AS Byatt or Margaret Drabble?
I wish the squabbling sisters would put their tantrums aside. Much made of very little in their squabble it seems. Byatt has always seemed too precious for me while I fell in step with Drabble from my first acquaintance with The Garrick Year. She has not disappointed. Drabble.
Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner?
The tough one. American Lit 201. Faulkner's singular achievement from Flem Snope's ponies to the pared down prose of the elemental As I Lay Dying has always fascinated me. But Hemingway represents the zeitgeist of the forty years of war that ended American isolationism, whose age of innocence grew into an unredeemed imperialism in its age of experience. Hemingway.
Margaret Atwood or Barbara Kingsolver?
Kingsolver while impressive I always find slightly self-consciously worthy. Atwood's range from her early work to the feminism of the middle years and the later emerging philosophy puts her head and shoulders above her American counterpart. Atwood.
Ian McEwan or Martin Amis?
Oh, dear. Is this the best you can do? Not you, John. The supposed pinnacle of contemporary English writing. With Atonement McEwan is essentially a one book author. Nothing else comes close. Martin Amis is a pygmy standing on the shoulders of his father's reputation. I loathe his self-absorbed scribblings. McEwan.
Inspiration or Determination?
I remember a British poet teaching at the University of Victoria in British Columbia saying if you don't walk out into the storm every day, you are unlikely to be hit by lightning. While I don't seek inspiration from anything as such I am inspired by my determination to put myself on the line with my writing everyday. Even if it means only writing one word. Determination takes the skirmish, braves the battle and wins the war. Determination.
1. The title of your debut novel, “The Cushion Effect” contains within it such a subtly mysterious reference to an integral theme from the book. When did that title arise and how did you come upon it?
I heard the story of the cushion, a supposed secret between two women, and thought how appropriate a location to hide a precious truth from the past. Further reflection on how I might use it as a leit-motif in a story developed its metaphorical significance. Any brief perusal of a dictionary or a thesaurus will reveal connotative contraries in its meaning which can be distilled into comfort versus suppression. So the consideration of the irony implicit in a situation where additional material comfort can lead to emotional suppression led me on.
2. Your vocabulary is intellectual, intense and intimidating – how did you acquire such an immense lexicon? It is beyond professorial and wholly appropriate in context. Was it a conscious expansion of your wordlist or was it amassed via the osmosis of experience?
I would rather say it is fit for purpose. The cat-sat-on-the-mat school of writing has a lot going for it, but it does not provide the accuracy that a wide-ranging vocabulary offers. It is like expecting a surgeon to complete a complex operation with a buzz saw, chisel and mallet. Certain cultures have scores of words to describe certain aspects of their society (snow for the Inuit, love for Greeks), but my word bank has grown more randomly. As part of my apprenticeship as a writer I fortuitously took seven years of Latin at school. And I must confess that as a teenager instead of sitting on the loo with a copy of Seventeen (or later Cosmo) I was accompanied regularly by Webster and absorbed a lot.
3. I have gone on record comparing your penning of “The Cushion Effect” to be the literary equivalent of Orson Welles directing “Citizen Kane.” Personally I think you are among the greatest writers I have ever encountered – and I have encountered a few in my day. When did you become aware that your talent was at that heightened level? (Or are you aware?)
This question, and your observation, make me extremely uncomfortable. I am not aware that I am operating at any heightened level. I am happy to write as I do and to use what skill I have to present the ideas I am developing. The key is telling the story.
4. Setting is hugely important to “The Cushion Effect” and to “American Daughters”. Even for a Yank such as I who am not intrinsically aware with the street-level locales of British locations – I feel as if I have a visceral sense of place from your intricate yet fascinating descriptions. What is your intent for those passages and what are you hoping your readers get from that?
I want to suffuse the reader in the experience, to use words as much as possible to enrich the feedback from the senses. I am not sure specifically what passages you are referring to, but I am conscious of delivering atmosphere in all the set piece occasions in my work.
5. In a similar vein, your narrative construction concerning props and the paraphernalia surrounding your characters is brilliantly realized. You have long yet constantly interesting descriptions of items that seem to hold to a higher purpose. You are obviously doing more than simply itemizing here – what are you hoping to elicit from these descriptions?
Props and paraphernalia make it sound like I am dressing a series of naked dolls. I hope the elements that surround my characters and events are more holistically integrated. They are further enrichment of the atmosphere I am trying to create within the story, woven, one hopes seamlessly, into the tapestry.
6. Your books feature strong women – often strong in distinctly appointed ways – is that a result of the narrative needs of these particular books or is that a philosophical intent?
Publishing, so representative of the culture of our times, continues to patronise the strong woman. If anything I am attempting to de-mythologise the concept of the strong woman. All women are strong. In different ways. Even the weak. Women are playing the game of life differently to men. But men can only evaluate them from their own experience and by their own rules. This leads to limiting and pigeon-holing the female experience, trying to manage it within male terms of reference. So, yes, I suppose the creation of strong women in my work is a deliberate expression of philosophical intent.
7. Are your characters created from whole cloth or are aspects of some of them based upon real people you have known? I know of at least one that was based on someone you knew – did you feel an obligation to build strictures of reality around her or did you allow yourself the fictive freedom to idealize or mold her for the purposes of your storytelling?
Writers are like magpies. We collect and hoard those things we see as bright, shiny, interesting. Certainly some aspects of my characters are based on elements I have observed in the real world: personal traits, mannerisms, the occasional felicitous phrase. I do not limit myself to the strictures of the real person when using their essence in a fictional creation. One hopes, however, not to betray the significance of whatever characterisation one is using.
8. Your books are disarming in that on the one hand the action seems to move slowly yet there is a lot that ironically is revealed in that deliberate path. This seems to be a European languishing vs. American bombasting contrast. How much of your pacing is deliberate choice and how much is simply the context of your upbringing infusing itself upon your work?
For the books I am writing in this genre I prefer the slow burn. Perhaps, indeed, it is cultural, not that I don’t appreciate the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am school. I am interested in portraying the inner sense of my characters and their deliberations in arriving at the people they are. This is unlikely to create a rapid response regimen. Again, perhaps because the majority of my main characters are women, their responses are unlikely to be knee-jerk reactions to the world that surrounds them.
9. In a similar way you use spare emotion and sentimentality that builds dramatically. Do you outline your writing and if so do you use that outline to pace the emotion and sentiment?
I can relate to spare emotion. I have gone out of my way in The Cushion Effect to diminish the purely sentimental aspects of the relationships and the capital illness which, again, are often too easy to pigeon-hole into stock responses. You may have noticed that later chapters give away their emotional content in an almost Brechtian headline before examining the how and why of such emotion. This is deliberate. I am not so interested in the emotion itself as in the social and psychic responses that deliver it. This does not seem, however, to diminish its impact. I paid close attention to the outline of chapters to ensure a balance between the stories of the three women, as you have observed all strong in different ways.
10. “The Cushion Effect” is a brilliant and unique novel. How do you follow up such a subtly remarkable book? Having been fortunate to read some early chapters of “American Daughters” I believe your writing hand is even more assured and solid – which is saying a heckuva lot! How do you keep from replicating themes/styles/techniques?
Daughters is a very different novel from The Cushion Effect. In fact I have decided it is sufficiently complex that it is not one novel but two. I intend to publish it in two halves, guided by the spirit of Lawrence Durrell, whose centenary we are celebrating. It will be a double-decker novel, with the first entitled American Daughters: Advent. It had become a problem in terms of its scope and depth. I do not think my readership is ready for a 500 pager from me. The second part will come out a year later. Where The Cushion Effect focuses on the episodes in the life of three women and their families Daughters homes in on one family and the mayhem created when the estranged daughters from the husband’s first marriage arrive on the scene. The point of view is very much that of the principal male character with the counterpoint of a very assured and witty second wife. The actual timeline is limited to the month before Christmas whereas in TCE the story stretches through years. So it is altogether more intense and detailed. This brings its own particular challenges especially as the story is more potentially comic with the hubris of the male character exposed unflinchingly for all to see. As to the writing, I feel very confident about it. It is certainly richer than the earlier work and the dialogue is honed by initially being developed for a play.
11. I have read a lot of great books and truly love the unique feel of each individual author’s voice. To whom if anyone do you compare yourself? I honestly can’t feel any similarities to anyone living or dead, but you know your influences.
I don’t but there are many influences from my reading. Although I don’t pay (much) attention to reviews or reviewers one whom I respect recently compared TCE to Anita Brookner. This I found amusing as the Courtauld (where Brookner worked) and the London art world feature in Daughters. Predictive content from a prescient reviewer? I don’t know, but it was pleasing. I can see elements of Mavis Cheek, Joanna Trollope and Justin Cartwright, and, of course, a distaff Lawrence Durrell if one could imagine such a thing!
12. When do you think we can see “American Daughters”? And are you already planning book three?
I expect American Daughters: Advent to be out in September. It will make ideal Christmastime reading. And afford me the opportunity to do some publicity for it before my next trip to the Americas. The sequel, or part two, currently with only a working title, I would think will be a year later, September 2013.
John Kenworthy's Book Blog Tour continues tomorrow with "An Excerpt from 'The Missionary and the Brute'" at:
The Missionary and the Brute on Amazon (paperback):
The Missionary and the Brute on Amazon (Kindle):
The Missionary and the Brute on publisher's site: