An interview with Joanna Kavenna, who is on Granta’s list of Best of Young British Novelists 2013.
Recently selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2013, Joanna Kavenna is a writer who can jump genres with surprising ease. This makes it almost impossible to slot her under just one. With one travelogue and three novels already published, Kavenna is currently working on her fifth book, an excerpt from which has been published in Granta’s collection. She is travelling to India later this month. Excerpts from an interview:
Tell us a little about the pre-The Ice Museum time, the wanderlust that led to it, and if it's still one of the forces that drives you as both an author and an individual.
I always loved to read travelogues, from writers meandering around recording their impressions like D.H. Lawrence or Mark Twain or Joseph Campbell to explorers’ accounts of major expeditions. So I always had a desire to travel — D.H. Lawrence writes about the ‘urge to move’ — a basic predilection. In my twenties, though, I moved partly out of financial necessity. I had very little money and I was trying to write in any way I could. So I lived anywhere I could afford, and worked at whatever job gave me some time to write as well. I lived in the Baltic States, and the U.S., France, Germany, and Norway. I worked as a secretary, as an editor, as a journalist, and gradually I started to piece together the idea for my first book, The Ice Museum, which is a non-fiction book about travelling through northern Europe and the Arctic, roughly in search of travellers' yarns and traces of the Ancient Greek idea of Ultima Thule, the last land in the north. After some years of travelling and living in the North, I wrote a sketchy proposal for The Ice Museum and got a publishing deal.
So then I had to travel formally, with a kind of official sanction, and that felt quite odd at first. The journey goes from Scotland to Iceland, Norway, Germany, the Baltic States, Greenland and Svalbard — so some of the places I knew well but went back to again, to sustain the momentum of the book, and some of the places I went to for the first time, like Greenland.
Did the travelling, living in countless countries and houses help you gain perspective as an author?
I think as an author you have this one great freedom — you can live everywhere. You have no job security, no pension, very few possessions and so on, but you can go wherever you please — there is no office, no boss asking after you. And yes living in lots of different countries does change your perspective all the time. Since The Ice Museum, I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy, Africa, Australia, China and the U.S. again and these interludes were transformative in different ways. I write differently in different places, I become locked into certain patterns of thought in England and it’s always useful to disrupt those patterns. And yes houses too — I have moved an awful lot of times, and so I don't need a particular setting to write.
But there's another important element too; the old adage about how you can’t escape from yourself. You inevitably take yourself everywhere you go. So you have to accept that certain predilections and basic responses remain, irrespective of your location.
I’ve read about how you said that you started writing as early as the age of 13. Could you talk about the reasons you write?
I write because of a basic compulsion. As a child, I always read the whole time, and I started writing as soon as I could form words with a pen. Really I wrote much earlier than 13, in terms of plays, poems; completely nascent, flawed and childish efforts of course. But 13 was when I wrote my first novels, in a very loose sense of the word. I have always loved the musicality of words, and I love to hear language in my head as I read or write. I wrote before I had any readers, and I write a lot now that I never try to get published. So I would write anyway, even without readers — but equally I enjoy that strange contact you have with readers as they respond to your work, and I also really like meeting audiences. Those moments when you connect in some significant way with a room of people can be very exhilarating.
I’ve only just finished Inglorious, and I was reading about The Birth of Love. It's almost impossible to slot you in a specific genre. It's usually tough for an author to jump genres.
Again it comes from basic predilections. I write a lot of things that I never publish, either because I hold them back or because publishers don’t think they’re commercial enough. I don’t mind that, as long as I publish enough to keep writing, because the alternative would be trying to second guess the publishers and stymieing my sense of how the novel should be, which I don’t want to do. So I write a novel in whichever way it emerges, and when it’s finished I just hope someone will publish it. If they don’t, I don’t regard the book as a failure; it’s just not suited to the parameters of contemporary publishing. So with those novels you have read, I just began to write and they emerged in that particular way.
In terms of genre, I think genre is usefully abrasive — it is a formal restriction which you then work against. Sometimes I write quite directly against a genre to which I’m deliberately referring. I take the post-modern fragmented narrative in The Birth of Love and I try to draw my fragmented elements into a moment of apotheotic cohesion at the end, with the moment one of the characters gives birth. Because I had a sense that, yes, things fall apart, in the modernist way, but equally that the moment of birth is an odd point of synthesis between past, present, future — the lives of your ancestors, the future life of your children, and all their descendants — and all these moments coalesce in this crazy-beautiful moment of birth.
Or with Inglorious, I was writing in response to the ‘outsider’ genre — which is a modernist genre — in which the disaffiliated narrator wanders the teeming modern city, looking for answers — Baudelaire, Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Enrique Vila-Matas’ Never Any End to Paris, Sarnath Banarjee’s The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers. I love that genre and I wondered, what happens if the disaffiliated protagonist is a woman? How do people respond? So with that book, part of the experiment was to gauge the response.
The excerpt in Granta’s collection, ‘Tomorrow’, has been taken from your forthcoming novel. A little about the story and the book.
This is a book I’ve been writing for some years, in different ways, trying to piece it together. It’s basically about a group of characters living from 1999 to the present day. I think we’ve been through a massive revolution in this time — the Digital Era — and we are still struggling to get to grips with the effects of this revolution on consciousness. I grew up reading American and European modernists like Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and they were all labouring to understand the revolutions of the modernist era, the transformations of consciousness incurred by the rise of global super-cities and new technologies of flight, the moving image and so on. And I was very influenced by the modernists and still am. But I think we’ve now been through an equally seismic revolution with the digital era and it has had a massive effect on how we experience the world, and it’s fascinating to think about how to express some of this in the novel. And I am interested in people passing through time, like most novelists. So I am letting the characters run off in their various directions and seeing what happens. There are some parallel realities in it too, at the moment.
You are three novels down, on to your fourth one, and you've been writing for years. Now you find yourself on the list of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. What does that mean to you?
It’s wonderful. I grew up reading novelists from earlier lists — Will Self, A.L. Kennedy, Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, Julian Barnes, Louis de Bernieres, Rachel Cusk — and I was always aware of the Granta list. But, of course, you never expect to be on these sorts of lists, because these things are not yours to demand. So I was not expecting it, at all, and I was genuinely delighted.
You also hope it will encourage publishers to take a risk with your writing when you experiment or write books that don’t strike them as automatically commercial. So all such forms of professional recognition are delightful in themselves but you also hope they translate into greater creative freedom as well.
It will also be very interesting to see how the 2013 generation of Granta BOYBN fares in the changing climate of global publishing. We know how previous generations have fared and so it will be an interesting point of comparison, as the contemporary discussion is very much about the demise of publishing and the end of creative copyright online and the new conditions for the creative classes — filmmakers, musicians, writers — who used to live from monies earned from their creative copyright.
One of the greatest pleasures of it all though has been the opportunity to travel and to meet audiences in India, China, Europe, North America and, soon, I'll be in South America too.