No One Gets Out Alive: An Interview with Joanna Walsh

by Thea Hawlin

Dubbed by Deborah Levy as ‘fast becoming one of our most important writers,’ Joanna Walsh is the award-winning author of Hotel (Bloomsbury, 2015) and Vertigo (And Other Stories, 2016). I spoke with her on the launch day of her debut digital book, Seed, a novella that blooms, wilts, and grows as you read it.

You’ve called Seed the ‘craziest thing’ you’ve ever made. Can you tell us how the collaboration with Visual Editions and Google came about? 

Visual Editions had worked with Google on several digital projects before Seed, and I’d worked with Visual Editions before, when they commissioned me to write a story for a collaboration with Ace Hotels. I can’t remember exactly how I came to VE with Seed as a digital project, but I can remember that we were in a cafe in Islington in the rain and they were immediately enthusiastic. 

The way we process literature is constantly changing. What’s exciting about this project is that it forces a confrontation and interaction with how we go about accessing literature in the contemporary world. Was that interplay something you were very conscious of encountering and experimenting with? Is there anything you wish you’d known about the process before starting the project? 

It was an experiment for me in that I didn’t know what was possible. I only knew that I wanted to create a navigable narrative space that was not physically perceptible (like a book) in that readers would have a sense of being able to move about in it, and that there might be limits, but would have no sense of reading left to right, of the weight of the book, of how far they were through, or, sometimes, of direction within the narrative. I suppose I was trying to create something that behaved like a landscape that could be explored. That I had no idea whether and how technology could facilitate this was a blessing rather than a curse. I’m very grateful to the creative team for not only being able to enable so many of my ideas, but for creating beautiful solutions I had no idea were possible.

Did you pass on the text and an outline of sorts and leave the digital designers to interpret your work freely or did you remain involved as the project grew? I’m guessing it was certainly a different experience to traditional publishing. . .

I was very involved throughout the process, most importantly in defining the sort of digital structure we could possibly create in order to facilitate the kinds of readings I wanted to stimulate.

You’ve contributed to many publications as an illustrator yourself. Were you ever tempted to draw the accompanying images? What drew you to the work of Charlotte Hicks? 

I never considered it. I haven’t worked consistently as an illustrator since I started writing in 2012. Both writing and drawing require daily practice (for me at least). Besides I’d never illustrate my own work because the visual commentary on the text would mean I was second-guessing myself.

How do you see the relationship between digital platforms impacting on literature in the next few years? Do you think we can expect more digital books in the years to come?

I can’t comment on the approaches of other writers or publishers. I’ve come to this very much from a writer’s background, with little knowledge of what’s possible or standard in digital, only in narrative. I would like to do more digital work. 

Is there any book from the past you’d love to see reinvented as a digital book?

That’s an interesting one. . . I’ve drawn inspiration from other nonlinear books like Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Balesterini’s Tristano. Anne Quin’s Passages would work well. . . maybe Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman

When writing were you conscious of how condensed each section would be (on a phone screen, which is the recommended viewing platform, each page only contains a few lines)? Many parts read like poetry; was that something you intended? Challenging the distinction between prose and poetry feels like a very rich arena right now in the literary world. Do you enjoy pushing at those distinctions?

I keep trying not to be a poet, mainly out of a great respect for what poets do. I keep saying that I can’t be a poet because poets pay attention to form in particular ways . . . then discovering that I pay attention to form in particular ways. Are they poetic? If I don’t know, then, maybe not. I particularly love lyric prose works by poets: Anne Boyer, Anne Carson, Vahni Capildeo. Seed is around 40k words. If it’s a poem, it’s a long poem.

Harnessing the properties of the web the book manages to merge the aesthetics of a game interface or app with high literary form, an impressive achievement. What do you hope readers will gain from the digital experience of the novella? In your opinion what does the digital realm add to or offer to the reading experience? 

The digital literature I’ve seen does tend to work with goal-oriented game-like structures, governed by a desire to ‘make sense’—though I believe there are more experimental games out there too. Seed is an anti-game: choose what you will: no one gets out alive. I’ve been thinking about the authority I’m still claiming as an ‘author’ in Seed; despite the degree of reader-control offered by the project, it’s still a fairly traditionally ‘authorial’ work.

In many ways Seed also reminded me of Anne Carson’s FLOAT (not least because one of the sections is named ‘float’), especially with the idea of moving away from traditionally linear narratives in search of something more fragmented but also incredibly controlled. When writing did you always have the overarching structures of the readers’ experience in mind? Or was it a lot of copying and pasting from a linear framework and working out which strands to finally develop into ‘vines’? 

I haven’t read FLOAT yet – but am delighted to be compared to Carson! I had to write Seed as a linear text to ensure it will read ok for anyone who wants to follow the temporal narrative. That said, I never write in a ‘linear’ fashion, but in one that resembles the Seed reading experience: I write phrases, notes, paragraphs, then bring them together on shuffle, until they work. 

As the narrative remains non-linear there’s a sense that you’re creating a landscape for the reader to traverse. Unlike physical books I feel like you could easily extend and edit a digital manuscript – I wouldn’t be surprised if Seed had hidden passages you could ‘unlock’. Do you think you’d ever be tempted to extend Seed within its digital format (say, by adding on another month, or more vines) or even extend it beyond the digital? Or will it always remain tangled up with the Internet?

I’m glad it had that effect on you. I’m happy with Seed as it is: it’s a fairly tight work, and I’ve said what I wanted to say in it. I love the idea of locked passages: part of my intent was to create a feeling of implied space beyond what is described (isn’t that the intent of most novels, to create, in however abstract sense, a ‘world,’ even if  ‘world’ means a set of conceptual parameters?). I’d like to do a print edition to see if and how the circle of nonlinearity could be squared. 

Paul Simon features heavily at the start and the idea of the mix-tape that the protagonist is making for a party runs throughout, along with music of the times like Madonna. Were you ever curious to experiment with incorporating music into the experience and have songs play at certain stages?

I’d have loved to but. . . copyright. I’m more concerned with the ambient, environmental sounds and would like to have incorporated a soundtrack into the project, but . . . time, money, complication. . .

Why did you decide to set the novel in the late 1980s? 

I’ve gone and written a historical novel! Something I thought, and have most likely, said, I’d never do. I was growing up in the late 80s when Seed is set. Today, the day Seed is released, and I read a piece in the Paris Review about Threads, Barry Hines and Mick Jackson’s devastating 1984 film about England post nuclear holocaust. Seed is about growing up with this fear. Children today are growing up with different scenarios of horrifying environmental destruction, but 1988 seemed a locus of particular kinds of fear, not only about nuclear fallout (via Chernobyl and the Cold War), but other kinds of infection: AIDS, CJD. . . In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and perspectives shifted, but years of living with an alternative reality in which everyone I knew, as well as everyone I didn’t, would die slowly and terribly, has made the adult world in which sex and love and work are pleasant games seem at times no more than a shadow world to it. I didn’t want, as some authors have done, to write these fears out as a dystopian scenario; I wanted to hold on to the effect they had, un-enacted, in our world. I wrote Seed because I wondered whether these particular fears have had a half-life in the subconscious an entire generation. 

I was intrigued by the way you decided to depict a very set time-frame within a single year. Why did you decide to focus on such a short period of time rather than look at a whole year?

I was interested in that brief but extended ‘holiday’ between school and further study, and what happens to girls’ friendships, to their identity, without the context of either. 

Your interplay of environment, of external and internalised stories, of the surrounding landscape, nature, and the inner workings of the female body is fascinating. Did you want nature, its presentation, and your characters’ interaction with it to always play a crucial role in the story? There are so many wonderfully specific references to different plants, did that take a lot of research? 

I feel like I’m connecting with a very rich tradition of English environmental writing as a location of protest, from William Langland to Alan Moore and beyond (I read comics, I’m currently reading Warren Ellis’s Injection). It’s odd to pay attention to my ‘Englishness,’ something with which I’m not usually on very good terms. The book took very little research. I grew up in a place like the valley in Seed. I spent a lot of time alone. I was bored, and I noticed small things changing in nature in great detail. As a child I was also given a number of nature books in which ‘spotting’ and ’naming’ seemed the thing to do. 
One of the first sections is titled ‘Rosemary’ which instantly reminded me of Ophelia’s line from Hamlet where Rosemary is ‘for remembrance’, and we also find out one of the main characters is called Rosemary, and the play itself comes up again and again in the novella. How did the idea of memory play into your construction of the book? You use repetition very cunningly throughout, so often the reader feels they can hardly trust their memory. Why did you decide to create such textual references within the work? What was the importance of referencing and including Hamlet (and more specifically Ophelia) for you? 

As a teenager I hated Ophelia. She seemed so pretty and silly. And to die because she let herself be treated as a pawn by her family and friends – how ridiculous! There was no way I’d end up like her. I shaved my head, wore Doc Martens, but there was nothing I could do. Ophelia comes up from under the water again and again for me. I hope for future generations of girls she becomes a less potent symbol. 

The construction of womanhood in the novella is fascinating, obviously a lot of the tale centres (can you even say that for this book? Twists? Spirals?) around the burgeoning womanhood of the narrator and her encounters with her changing body, desires, feminism, and what it means to be a woman. I particularly loved the passage about the ‘secret bodies’ of women and the way that what people see is a façade and that: ‘their secret bodies are bundled up and partitioned and stretched and pushed up and smoothed down,’ the idea that women are constantly disguising themselves with clothes (even their animal / primal selves perhaps? Very Angela Carter) and that ‘woman is what is changeable. Everything is only a garment.’ Thinking about the overarching themes of disease and decay was there a part of you that wanted to try and dissect those aspects of ‘learned’ femininity and the way we construct gender? 

I wanted to record gender as I found it presented to me as a teenager. There was nothing subtle about it, so no need to exaggerate. The bizarre and surreal disjunctions were right there out in the open. And not just gender but gender x class: the different ‘women’ you could be in magazines and ads were so often about inhabiting social stereotypes. Still, as a girl I received so little encouragement to aspire to a wider set of roles, that fashion provided some of the most liberating dreams, as well as the most oppressive.

There’s a lot in the book that examines crucial experiences of girlhood that continued to remain under-explored. I’m thinking about the sections about childhood dolls and female friendship (which reminded me so much of Ferrante), all the way up to the brutal realities of menstruation and the physical pains of womanhood. Do you think it’s important to have more writing that recognises these moments? Why? 

When I was growing up I read many books by men in which, if the subject was female they often served the purpose Picasso defined as ‘machines for suffering’  (Dimitra Xidous discusses this in the latest edition of gorse journal, which I recommend highly). Ferrante wrote that she doesn’t see her characters as ‘women who are suffering but as women who are struggling.’ Likewise, I have sometimes been told my characters (in Vertigo) are ‘unhappy’ which makes little sense to me: they are women, in situations in which women often find themselves, and they are getting on as best they can. Sometimes they even enjoy it. To have our struggles delineated allows us to participate in the description, ‘human’.

As a bildungsroman the book also depicts wonderfully, and at times comically, the difficulty of learning to express oneself, and again tackles a very notably female experience of the women’s magazine as an authorial voice, dictating how one should dress and look and the difficulties of being sensitive and receptive to such guidance when attempting to form an identity. How do you think the culture of women’s magazines has altered the way in which girls grow? 

I’m glad you found it funny as well as terrible! I love clothes though I don’t often read fashion mags so I’m not sure how they’ve changed. Women’s and girls’ magazines have always been double-edged: as venues for expression, for information – particularly about sex, which has not always been easy to get elsewhere, especially pre-internet – as celebrating and valuing the cultures of beauty and fashion, while also, sadly, sometimes embodying the more repressive aspects of these. 

What was it like watching the book finally come together and reading it for the first time when it was completed?

Terrifying: I had no idea whether it would work. I can never read Seed like someone who comes fresh to the work, who doesn’t know the behind-the-scenes stuff intimately. It’s profoundly moving to have anything published, but in Seed I have written about all the things I was not allowed to talk about as a teenager, when I suffered so much from the thought they couldn’t be valued at all as ideas or art, or even recognisable human experience. I'm still so angry and sad about all that stuff. Seed is a great big fuck you to all the history and lit I had to read that told me, as I was often told IRL at the time, that my experiences were worthless, shameful, trivial or embarrassing. I've been thinking about all this for half my life and I never thought I'd be able to find the right shape for it. 

You can read Seed free online from Visual Editions here.