Unknowable universe

Joanna Kavenna, one of Granta’s best young British novelists, speaks about her path-breaking novels

December 25, 2013 07:39 pm | Updated 07:39 pm IST - Bangalore

Celebrating life: Joanna Kavenna. Photo: Murali Kumar.K.

Celebrating life: Joanna Kavenna. Photo: Murali Kumar.K.

“I was trying to find the Holy Grail for the writer. I travelled a lot just to see the world. I have always loved myths. They suspend us in a world that is not literal. The world is a bit like that; the Universe is so unknowable,” says Joanna Kavenna, one of Granta’s best young British novelists of 2013.

Wanderlust is what Joanna feels strongly. She grew up in various parts of Britain and has lived in the US, France, Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic States. In her first book The Ice Museum , published in 2005, Joanna writes of her travels through northern lands and examines the idea of Thule, a region located in the most northerly part of the ancient world.

But it is to London Joanna always returns. “The yearning to go and the yearning to return is always there within me. What I feel for London, though, is much like the jaded love you have for a family member.”

She was in the city recently to participate in an interactive session with authors Adam Foulds and Anjum Hasan, organised by British Council in collaboration with Granta Magazine, as part of their international showcase of the Best Young British Novelists to India.

“I used to write plays, short stories. And sort of novels by 14. I began writing novels when I was at University. Writing a novel is quite a craft, what you take into the world is very different.” So Joanna waited till she wrote eight novels, which she didn’t get published. Inglorious , her first novel, was published in 2007 and won the Orange Award for New Writing. “I did have a lot of rejection, but you remember publishers who helped you,” says Joanna, who completed her PhD when she was 24, because “I was in a hurry,” she laughs.

A “darkly funny novel”, Inglorious , set in London, with urban dislocation as its underlying theme, tells the story of a journalist who has quit her job and is on a brink of a nervous breakdown, following the death of her mother.

“I wrote this before the economic meltdown. I wanted to write of the very specific contemporary dilemma of living a glittering, modern life.”

Joanna’s second novel The Birth of Love brings together three stories through different periods in history and revolves around “science and faith, madness and compromise, and the epic journey of motherhood.”

“Childbirth is such an extraordinary, utterly new experience. It is one of those transformative experiences. I wanted to make it as human a story as possible, and it was written for both men and women.”

Come to the Edge , again, is completely different from Joanna’s previous novels. It is a satire set in a fictionalised version of the Duddon Valley in Cumbria.

“I always write on different things because you don’t want to be bored. Come to the Edge is about the effects of massive economic forces in small places. I have explored the microcosm by seeing it from the macrocosm.” Does she consider the term “woman writer” limiting? “When you write, you write as a unique human being. While writing, you are in a space free from society’s assumptions. But when you publish the book, it goes into the world, where there is a perception about women writers. The general perception is that way, but it is better now than it was for Virginia Woolf.”

The Internet, Joanna agrees, has changed the way we write. “There are more writers than ever before. What has also changed because of the internet is that readers are more discerning; they do not like being lied to. They want politicians and writers to tell them the truth, and that is good for writing.”

Joanna describes her writing process, thus: “I get ideas, I write notes, I read bits of things, I have conversations. I wait till I think it’s formed. I write it quickly, in long hand and then write it again and then type it out.”

For young writers who desire to be read and published, Joanna says: “Virginia Woolf says: ‘You can only write the novel you wanted to write.’ Do that, it doesn’t matter whether you are 20 or 50.”

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