‘I Love to Talk About Minutiae’: An Interview with Julia Armfield

by Louis Harnett O’Meara

At 28, Julia Armfield is being hailed by many as one of the UK’s pre-eminent new literary voices. Longlisted for the Deborah Rogers literary award in 2018 and presented with the White Review short story prize soon after, her tales are both macabre and humane. Balancing a tone of cool detachment and gentle empathy, Armfield lays out an aesthetics inherited from the likes of Angela Carters 1970s fairytales, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the annals of the horror genre; and while her tales demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of the genre’s tropes and motifs, these elements are imbued with an empathic literary sensibility that pushes the potential of the form forward. The fantastic – sleepless phantoms, golems and werewolves – is used as a means of examining the complexities of the modern female’s relationships with others and the corporal.

Armfield’s debut collection, Salt Slow, was published by Picador on May 31. This comes alongside a book deal for the novel she is currently working on, also under Picador. Here, Armfield discusses her writing processes, the transition between short stories and the novel and how her interests have guided her.

How did you begin writing the stories for Salt Slow?

I started writing short stories in a bit of a strop because I wanted attention. Writing a novel takes four years of nobody paying you any attention, so I had given up on multiple before. When I was 21 I was on a Curtis Brown Creative Writing course; it was the second one – Jessie Burton was on the first one, so we were all very bitter about that. But we had some amazing people on my one: there was Kate Hamer, who has written some really intricate literary crime novels, and James Hannah, who wrote The A-Z of You and Me, which I love. But I was 21 and I was writing sentences the length of my arm – that was all novels. I was all-in with novels until I decided I couldn't be bothered any more and found out that apparently I'm meant to be doing this, which I'm much better at. So it was pure sulkiness. 

Have you sensed progression? You must have written the stories a long time ago.

To some extent. It's almost exactly a year since I was longlisted for the Deborah Rogers prize, which is how I got my agent, and it all came together quite quickly after that. I had about eight stories for the collection and there was one that was written subsequently. But everything else had been written over a two-year period before that. I don't know that you can necessarily sense a progression; I think I’ve become less embarrassed as it's gone along, and I’m less concerned with holding back. It's definitely become easier to do. 

I thought the last story of the collection, ‘Salt Slow’, was your best.

I like that one because it came so easily. I wrote it in about three days – I didn't really know where I was going but I was so happy to go with it. Whereas ‘Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax’ was an absolute struggle; I really like it now as well, but it wasn’t the same to write. It was work, while ‘Salt Slow’ was more like playing music.

When did you write ‘Stop Your Women's Ears with Wax’?

About mid-way. I wrote it on a summer holiday, which I think is possibly why it was so difficult – because I was already not in work-mode. Everything had slowed down. When you find yourself just deliberating and deliberating over the construction of a sentence you know that something has gone wrong. You know that it just has to go. 

It feels like you are balancing your language quite carefully.

I'm really into rhythm; I know if a sentence feels wrong to me. Often that’s not the correct way to write because you are not getting your point across, but I think the format of the short story establishes a different set of rules.

Your descriptive passages pick out details, such as the very particular breed of a dog. How do you tend to manage that in the writing process though – do you take notes on real-life scenarios?

I will do that occasionally but not obsessively. Donna Tartt always has a notebook on her because suddenly something will occur and she will jot it down, then it will come to the reader in six years’ time through a novel. I think that that is amazing, but I tend to fall back on things that preoccupy me. I'm obsessive about certain things: I love to list food; I love to talk about minutiae. Weird specifics are always the things that I remember in other novels; I think I've always picked those up. I notice the mundane things, like if someone notices something about the wallpaper or, like you say, a breed of dog. Something very pointed. It makes me remember the scene more. So I think some of that was initially calculated and has now just bled its way into the way that I write naturally. 

How are you finding writing your novel for Picador?

Great. I mean, completely different, in that even the prospect of an editor makes things easier. But writing a novel is terrifying, all of the time, because if you get yourself into a mess you get yourself into a big mess. I was 20,000 words in and decided, ‘absolutely not.’ I threw the entire thing in the air. Now I'm 10,000 words back in again but that's because I cannibalised the corpse of it. So yes, terrifying. 

Are you sticking to your theme? ‘Women and their bodies’. 

Yes, I’m entirely myopic; I don't know how to write anything else. It's the only reason that the entire collection managed to be so cohesive given that I didn’t intend it to be a collection. But it's women and bodies and I'm trying not to ape Shirley Jackson too much.

Do you feel that the focus has become tighter now you are writing a novel, or broadened out?

Initially I thought I could be broader because I had more space. In actual fact, when I'm trying to be broad in a word limit that’s so much bigger it becomes scattered. At a White Review short story writers panel in April, one thing we were being asked a lot is whether the laser focus of short stories makes things difficult – I think that it makes it so much easier; so much relies on suggestion and I think that gives you a huge opportunity to say, really, whatever you want. Whereas in a novel everything has to be explained and done and detailed. I find that the less I'm trying to do the easier it is. 

You mentioned you go through phases in which your writing flows over a number of days, while other times you find yourself trying to stagger your way through your work. Is that vacillation more difficult to manage when it comes to a much longer form of writing?

Yes and no. The only thing that I find particularly different is the threat of getting bored. I think that’s the same for everyone who writes a novel because you are with it for so much longer. The only way that I find it manageable is to treat it like several short stories and to jump around – and learning to not feel compelled to do the whole thing chronologically has been hugely helpful. If I was doing that I don't know how I would manage. But it's the same as finding the time the way I otherwise would. 

Were the initial 20,000 words chronological?

Yes, exactly. When you begin to write chronologically it can begin to feel very stilted and you feel like you are filling space to get to the next thing a lot of the time – but you can just do the things and connect them later. Do whatever is actually in your mind and it is so much easier. Then you can follow your enthusiasm. 

Do you follow one or two characters, or is it much broader?

In Tartt’s A Secret History the character Charles says, ‘I'm an only child, people's siblings interest me.’ Well, I'm not an only child and siblings interest me. I'm following a couple of sisters and I’m trying to write in the voice of one while incorporating the voice of the other. I'm also writing in first-person, which I find infinitely more comfortable. 

What do you do in your spare time other than write?

I read, obviously. But you don't want to ask this question, you'll completely blow the illusion! I love pilates, I love to run, I like to go to charity shops. I live in South London where there are all the best charity shops. I'm learning to cook properly because I was terrible at it for a very long time – I just ate rice and pesto for 3 years. And I go to the cinema all the time: I love horror.

'Stop Your Women's Ears with Wax' reminded me of Guadagnino’s Suspiria. How do you think movies, specifically horror movies, have influenced your writing?

Movies feel more permissive to me. If I'm trying to imitate something I've found inspirational in a movie I can do it in any way I want; whereas if you're trying to emulate a book there is some kind of formal constrict. And so much of early cinema – and lots of silent cinema – looks so surreal. It's not akin to real life and so you can watch it and allow it to bleed into your literature and make it totally other to the real thing. There's a director I really like called Roger Corman who did a series of Edgar Allen Poe movies in the ‘60s. He would like to descend into dream sequences because he could dispense with everything; he could dispense with dialogue and dispense with set and remove everything, so he could just work with suggestion. And sometimes I think if you're emulating film you can do the same thing in writing – you can just focus on one thing and try to be filmic in the way you present it.

Julia Armfield's Salt Slow is published by Picador.