From the Women’s Prize Archives.
The wonderful Fiona Melrose has been longlisted for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for her debut Midwinter. Read on to find out why Fiona set her debut in rural Suffolk.
Midwinter is set between Suffolk and Kabwe, Zambia – why did you choose to set your novel in these two locations?
Suffolk was a natural choice. As a first-time novelist I was spending much of my energy simply exploring if I knew how to write a novel, wondering if I had enough words in me, had something to say. I had recently moved to rural Suffolk from Johannesburg, South Africa, and writing about what was going on around me saved me the additional anxiety of having to dream up a location. Also, as someone new to the English countryside, I found myself very dislocated as well as seduced by the sometimes visceral beauty of the fields and woods. I was obsessive about absorbing and recording as much of this new world as I could.
Zambia came about as I wanted to give my Suffolk character Vale an African doppelgänger in Chisongo. To set a novel in South Africa and even in Zimbabwe would immediately make this a political statement when really I wanted Chisongo’s actions and tragedy to be very personal, to be about him, his struggles, not about a broader political narrative.
Your main characters are farmers and the book goes into meticulous detail about their day-to-day lives. Did you do any particular research to enable you to write so compellingly about farming?
I was living on a farm in Suffolk. Something very new to me after a life in South Africa and then many years working in London. I had no idea how things worked, what was involved, the level of work, rural networks, village life, financial struggles. I paid attention, I think that is much of a writer’s work, and then examined my responses to that. Every day was research, joyfully and fascinatingly so. I always asked if I could tag along if a man came to see about pigs, or a fence needed mending. People are generally very pleased if you show an interest in their work. I earwigged conversations in farm supply stores, watched cooking oil being dabbed on a pig’s trotters and black spots to shine him up before his turn at the Suffolk show. It was a natural curiosity which in a way preceded the actual writing.
Do you have a particular place where you like to write?
I write everyday in what I call The Writing Cafe. It is the cafe section of my local bookstore. The baristas know me and my order and on days when I look weary, offer encouragement by way of a nod or pat on the back as they bring my next cup. My current flat is surrounded by impressively noisy neighbours and I find my dogs demand too much attention when I am home. I also like the sense of Going To Work. It is healthy and very productive for me and, without coffee, I am creatively mute.
Midwinter is populated almost entirely by men – did you set out to write a book so rooted in masculinity? Did you discover anything while doing so?
I did intend to write about men and masculinity. I was so struck by how pervasive a particular, very traditional sort of masculinity was taken as standard where I lived in Suffolk. I lived near a military town, lots of talk of heroes and very aggressive, pejorative language levelled at anyone who strayed from that masculine ideal. It made me wonder who was being left out of this equation and how impossible it was to meet the criteria, given that life will knock one about from time to time and in those times perhaps a more forgiving, more encompassing identity might be useful. I do come from a feminist literary tradition and that comes with its own prejudices. What did surprise me and what I found moving was the loyalty and incredible sustaining power of long-standing male friendships. I hoped to reflect that in Midwinter.
Who are your literary heroines?
For me, everything always begins and ends with Virginia Woolf. I feel I will never fully understand the reach of her work, both in fiction and in activism. I feel I am always working in some kind of conversation with her. Early influences were Jean Rhys, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing. Margaret Atwood is magnificent, of course. Recent fiction from Deborah Levy, Ali Smith, Han Kang. In fact, so many of the writers on your list this year. Fiction as a form feels so expansive right now. I also read a lot of non-fiction, Olivia Laing and Mary Oliver are much loved. Rebecca Solnit continues to be a marvel. As a student I read Susan Sontag, Bell Hooks, Joan Didion and I also love diaries: Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath, Woolf again. Poets: Plath, Sexton, Dickinson. I am afraid I could go on. I want to keep them all close to me.