‘These Stories are Coming from a Place of Anger’: An Interview with Sophie Mackintosh

by Stephanie Sy-Quia

Sophie Mackintosh’s debut The Water Cure, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, has been hailed as being at the vanguard of a resurgence in feminist dystopias. Indeed, our pop culture climate has witnessed the adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale or Christina Dalcher’s novel Vox, but to lump Mackintosh in with them is to do the novel a disservice. The Water Cure moves with a lyricism that makes it read like an arthouse film: all sun-flared introspection and melancholia.

The novel is is told through the alternating voices of three sisters, who have lived their lives in seclusion with their mother and father, quarantined from an outside world made toxic and threatening by patriarchy. On the day I met Sophie, she was preoccupied by how much busier published life has made her. We repaired to Quo Vadis, where we ate olives, and where she has been given membership as a result of having done a talk; she emphasised that this was not what her everyday life was like.

In your other writing you have a recurring interest in post-industrial sites. You originally set The Water Cure on an oil rig. What lures you to these kinds of settings?

I think there is something interesting about places that have been abandoned. It often means either that something bad happened there or that there’s something very mundane about it. And it was a bit like a fairytale castle, in that it had that same relationship of the real and the uncanny.

It’s very interesting to me that your novel has been hailed as being at the new wave of feminist dystopias. I don’t know about you, I have been very immersed, for years, in an often dystopian reality for women. Can you comment on how publishing loves a trend?

It’s interesting to me that everyone is calling feminist dystopia a bandwagon, but there’s a massive range in the stories being told. Mine is definitely dystopian, because it’s set in the future and is about a world that isn’t quite ours. But it isn’t a swash-buckling tale, like The Hunger Games and there isn’t a lot of world-building. It’s not helpful to write it all off as a bandwagon, because there is obviously a common theme. Publishing does love a trend, so it is a good thing that we are seeing seeing more of these stories being bought, but I think we mustn’t disregard where these stories are coming from, which is a place of anger.

In your conversation with Katherine Angel at the LRB, you talked about the gratuity of violence done to women in things like the adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. I agree with you that there is something quite troubling about that – you used the phrase ‘torture porn’. Do you think that there is a current of playing straight back into the dialectic of female sexual victimisation in a lot of feminist dystopias?

I think that some people could say about The Water Cure as well! One person’s empowerment can always be another person’s gratuitous violence. It’s a tricky one for me. Violence is a way of getting an emotional response. Where do we have the line between giving gravity to the seriousness of women’s experiences without being damaging? No two women are going to have the same experience at all. What I wrote is very specific to the sisters. It was important to me to have a spectrum of violence in the book. For instance, Lia falls in love with someone who doesn’t love her back. That’s its own damage, but then you also have a man kill a woman.

Was there much of an education around men and the harm they can do when you were younger?

Not really. I always remember conversations being around my own personal shame. But maybe that’s a small town thing. I grew up in rural West Wales, so you don’t think it could happen in your backyard. But now my mother has read my novel and it has opened up conversations for the two of us around feminism. Today, for instance, she asked me what I thought about the Serena Williams incident [at the US Open]. It’s nice that she feels that she can have those conversations with me now.

There are two reversals in The Water Cure that I really liked. You turn the meat-making gaze on men. You have Lia say ‘Like my father, he is made of meat.’ Then you have Grace tell King in a kind of posthumous address that his body ‘made him a traitor, despite everything.’ Being reduced to meat and having your body betray you and your impulses is women’s remit in art. Why was it important to you to enact those reversals?

I liked to turn the gaze on the men for once. I liked the idea that the three sisters would have this objective view of the men, where they were more like strange animals: the men arrive and the sisters start asking questions. I have grown up thinking you are a threat to me, but how much of a threat are you really? How would it be possible to hurt you? What are you? You are a damaging object that has come to our shores and that I have been told is the most dangerous thing I can encounter. I’m afraid of you but I haven’t grown up around you and I’m fascinated by you. Like an alien.

You have that interjection almost at the end which to me feels like fairytale which is ‘Refrain of the man, universal: this is not my fault and do not take the actions of my body as words.’ Again, we take the actions of women’s bodies as words all the time. There’s something almost folkloric about that. This almost narratological interjection that comes towards the end and feels like a closing note. Ddi you feel that you were in a fairytale tradition at all?

I’m definitely in fairytales and influenced by Welsh Mabinogion and folk tales and I am very drawn to Angela Carter. I wanted it to have that timeless feel, fairytale-ish feel. It’s interesting to me that we take the actions of women’s bodies as words. With rape cases, men will often say things like ‘I just had sex with her’. Men can disavow the actions of their bodies in a way that women can’t. It was a way to re-narrativise the body: it can do one thing and mean another. But I don’t hate men!

But that being said, you have written a very powerful novel about them.

I feel that men don’t often realise the harm they can do. You can grow up telling yourself ‘I’m a good man, I love my mum, I love my sisters, I do good things’. But if you don’t interrogate that you can still do harm. I’m thinking of a high-profile rape case that was in the news – reading about the testimony of the men, and seeing them able to reframe it as just sex, rather than rape, so easily. And it was like, ‘But you did, but maybe even you don’t think you did, because you’ve been brought up in this world that tells you women want it and want you to behave in this way.’ I don’t want to believe that men can act in that way without feeling culpable, but I have a horrible feeling that they could actually convince themselves they didn’t do anything.

It’s interesting to me what you say about men’s frequent retort being ‘I love my sisters and I love my daughters’, because what about their romantic partners? How does non-filial trouble that behaviour?

Not even filial love, but a woman you pass in the street. How does that relate to you? It’s a strange disassociation between human beings! Lots of people have said this is a man-hating book about how all men want to kill women. I am merely reflecting behaviours that I see in the world every day.

The italicised passages that come interspersed through Lia’s central section of the novel really remind me of the intertitles of a silent scary film like Nosferatu or Metropolis.

I love that!

Can you talk a little about that as a formal device? You get this polyglossic intrusion which feels like a written text rather than palimpsestic testimony.

It was a way of bringing the outside world in. They do have a specific meaning – they are the words from the Welcome Book. It’s the sisters’ only exposure to the outside world except from seeing the actual women, and I wanted to bring in the outside world without actually bringing it in. The outside world is important because of its toxicity and that’s why they’re shut away from it, but I didn’t want to get bogged down in world-building. Throughout the book, we know as much as they do about the outside world., and so we see quite how little information they have. That was important to me.

As a device, I like how it intrudes on their very closed environment. As a woman, it can be very distressing to read about horrible rape. You can immure yourself from that kind of information but it can still get to you.

There was definitely a phase when I would open up my Twitter and be bowled over both by horrible stories and by the courage of women giving these testimonies. I felt I needed to read the details of these cases, that it was important to have them out there, but they also made me feel sick. Social media is a tool of empowerment but it can also be quite triggering for many people. One of the early thoughts behind The Water Cure was what if it were actually toxic? If the world makes you feel sick, what if you could actually be sick?

The [Irish] abortion referendum happened around the same time as publication date [for The Water Cure]. I’m not Irish and was woefully ignorant of what the women actually went through – we knew it all still happened, but having the referendum and hearing all the stories, seeing the experiences and the responses, really brought it home. Some of these things are completely inhuman, and if a man had to go through them it would be completely front page news. You’re brain-dead and you’re forced to carry a baby to term. That’s not even remotely dystopian, it’s actually dystopian. And those are things that were happening in the present.

I loved your comment that love is not just the absence of hurt. I feel like I could apply that to a lot of things. Perhaps you could talk about how pain is so wrapped in the acts of loving in this novel?

I was exploring things that in the real world – the sibling bonds, an intrinsic, a strange romantic love when the men arrive. What we do for love, and how it can affect us. I thought about it very much in a real world sense, but I wanted to transplant it into the novel and see how those loves play out.

With the relationship between Llew and Lia, I thought: ‘This is a dynamic that I recognise in the real world. How would that play out in a world where the stakes are that much higher?’ Why does he seduce her? It doesn’t truly make sense, or rather there is so much to lose. Our instincts can empower or disable us. The absence of harm doesn’t mean that you’re not being damaged. So much of the book is about you protect yourself and the armour we put on ourselves. What happens in a world where those armours don’t apply, when you can’t protect yourself physically or emotionally?

Moving on to talking about you as a writer – you’ve talked before about how crazily compartmentalised your writing was when you had a full-time job. Since you were able to start writing full-time, part of you misses that element. Could you talk a little about making that transition between being someone who is very much a writer, but also has a full-time job, and someone who writes full-time? Do you find the self-discipline really hard? Do you have any tips?

Getting out of the house. Pretending I am going to an office, except the office is a coffeeshop. I have a list of things I want to achieve rather than setting out to have a full day of writing. Don’t think about hours but targets in your own writing.

The difficulty now is that I have much more on, with readings and talking about my work. It will quieten down after a while. I leave the house and do some work. I have lost the urgency – but maybe that’s because I have done a book. Maybe the urgency only comes with some books. I’m really enjoying it to be honest, because towards the end I must have been such a horrible person to live with!

Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure is published by Hamish Hamilton.