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Q&A / Books: Gwendoline Riley

The fiercely independent author on Philip Roth, isolation and ten glorious years in fiction

Gwendoline Riley doesn’t really fit into any literary movements or scenes. She does her own thing and seems pretty resolute about it. Enigmatic, innovative, tenacious and insanely talented, Riley is also one of the best young British novelists currently typing. Yay! For evidence of this, see her devastating new book Opposed Positions. Seriously, please: do that.

Riley’s first novel Cold Water was published when she was just 22. The publication of her fourth book comes as her career in fiction turns ten years old, and it’s a total stonker, in which she continues to scratch unnervingly at the scab-point where fiction bleeds into the real. Opposed Positions is a short, sharp, shockingly brilliant peer down the pen of aislinn Kelly: 30-year-old northern English novelist, GSOH (dark), poetic, fiercely perceptive, somewhat strapped-for-cash, fond of Morrissey, dependent on writing sojourns in the vast blank anonymity of America. For ages we’ve been like, WLTM this author.

Dazed & Confused: I love this line from the novel: ‘So – what can you do? I wrote another book.’ Your writer narrator Aislinn’s got a real aversion to actually writing, much of the time. Is that how it is for you, or are you ever powerless not to write?
Gwendoline Riley:
Writing books – rather than just ‘writing’, which I don’t really do – is my way of being in the world, but ‘powerless not to write’, my goodness, I wish. The thing is, I know that if I stop trying, I quickly become ill. I mean I feel nauseated: caught in a rising tide of sadness and senselessness. Writing books is more than a way of warding off those feelings: it’s a way of taking them on, too, and that feels worthwhile, when I can do that. It’s a potent feeling, to capture how life is really lived, to stabilise certain inklings on the page. I feel I’m getting somewhere then.

Dazed & Confused: What do you think are the ideal conditions for you these days, for getting writing done?
Gwendoline Riley:
I need silence and solitude and my dictionaries.

Dazed & Confused: Your new book’s about a struggling, newly 30-something novelist for whom money is a constant problem. Are you particularly bitter that the literary world hasn’t remunerated you more handsomely?
Gwendoline Riley:
I’m happy to be out of the dusty mr Bleaney room where I spent most of 2009 and 2010, but it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be there. If you’re going to write fiction full-time then you’re accepting that you’re going to have to crawl forth on somewhere south of one third of the minimum wage, if you’re lucky. I do it full-time because otherwise there’d be a book about once every 20 years, or, more likely, no books at all. So yes, like Aislinn, I’ve spent a lot of years feeling very endangered and very frightened. The word ‘mulched’ was the one I kept using. I felt I was about to be mulched by poverty. But in that situation – what can you do but write another book?

Dazed & Confused: Are you apprehensive about the future of literary fiction in the changing world of book sales?
Gwendoline Riley:
I feel confident in saying there is no future for literary fiction! anyone who disagrees with that is some kind of mad-eyed proselytiser, to be avoided at parties.

Dazed & Confused: You seem incorrigibly drawn back again and again to your own life, or a life like yours, in all of your fiction. What’s with that?
Gwendoline Riley:
Well, in order to make statements like that you’d need to know the first thing about my life, which, unless you’re one of my four friends, you don’t. That aside, I will say, boringly, that I find you do have to write what you know, and that there has to be something real at stake in a book to make it worth writing, so maybe that answers the question. In My Life as a Man Philip Roth has a teacher put a sign up in his writing class: ‘anyone in this class caught using his imagination will be shot’. I wouldn’t reach for a gun, but I do hate that horrible corporate word ‘imagination’ and think it’s a real blight on fiction. It makes me think of Terry Gilliam films or – yuck – magic realism. What’s wrong with just – thoughts? If you mean my narrators are always writers, well, there’s no getting away from that!

Dazed & Confused: Have you ever experienced pressure to abandon your own novelistic obsessions and have a go at writing something aimed at being a more sort of commercial hit?
Gwendoline Riley:
Certainly I have, although I don’t know that this importuning was undertaken with any real hope of success. These felt like token requests. I remember crying in a cafe and asking my agent if I should just give up, and the reply came, ‘Would you consider that?’ I think they’d prefer I just stopped, really, rather than diversified.

Dazed & Confused: What about writing for the screen? That I would like to see.
Gwendoline Riley:
I’ve never considered it. Too much hassle to get the thing made. There is a script out there for Cold Water, which I haven’t read, but a beautiful pilot was shot last year, with Tuppence Middleton as Carmel and Hannah Murray as Margi. I’m still waiting to hear if it’ll get made...

Dazed & Confused: Would you advise a career in writing fiction then, to any of our readers with literary aspirations?
Gwendoline Riley:
It can’t do any harm for people to try, can it?

Dazed & Confused: Is there a shortage of really good young British writers at the moment?
Gwendoline Riley:
There’s a drought and a dearth, yes. I like Joe Stretch’s new book The Adult very much though. It’s Portnoyan.

Dazed & Confused: Is the literary scene in Britain these days something you feel much a part of?
Gwendoline Riley:
Is there one? I hope not. and happily I’m not a part of it.

Dazed & Confused: What about teaching creative writing?
Gwendoline Riley:
Yes, I’ve done it, on residential courses. I’m doing one this July at Keele university... They’re not un-fun to teach, for a week. I’m not sure I could do longer. I tend to hit the bottle pretty hard by the Thursday.

Dazed & Confused: There’s no hint of anything beyond email in the world of Opposed Positions. Are you on Facebook or Twitter or any of the social networks du jour?
Gwendoline Riley:
I’m not. I find them baffling. I tried Facebook for about 18 months a few years ago but I didn’t get much out of it. My page fell into desuetude and has been deactivated for a long time now. any time I took off my invisibility cloak on there I’d get insults, too. I appreciate that’s not an original observation about the internet but I don’t want a lot of perpetually aggrieved men having a go at me, so – that was that really. I think email is where I stop with all that. I like my pen pals.

Dazed & Confused: The book’s epigraph, a quote from Philip Roth, rules: ‘Did fiction do this to me?’ What is it that fiction has done to you?
Gwendoline Riley:
What hasn’t it done to me? It’s given me my life – such as it is. I love Philip Roth more than I can say. I watch YouTube videos of him to relax. That quote is from The Breast (1972), wherein what our hero believes fiction’s done to him is turn him into a breast. He thinks it comes from his having taught Kafka and Gogol, and is hoping it’s all a fever dream. His analyst assures him it isn’t, and to the ensuing entreaty, ‘What do I do?’ replies, ‘You tolerate it.’ The woman in my book finds herself similarly situated, I think. no, I don’t mean she’s turned into a giant breast – but she has to come to terms with what she is. That was the idea anyway.

Opposed Positions is out now, published by Jonathan Cape

Photography by Michael Mayren