Jo Case talks to Cherise Saywell about her debut novel Desert Fish.
This story is so intrinsically Australian, with its droughts and desert and distinctive imagery. (‘Saltbush clinging bitterly to sand. Sharp blue glitter of sky.’) Yet you wrote it from the UK. Was recreating this distant landscape a challenge, or did distance help fuel your imagination?
Definitely the latter. I was worried when I started that it would be difficult – the landscape I was living in was so far removed from those I grew up in. But I think that the places of childhood and youth stay with you, they become a part of you, and in the end the distance sharpened those memories. It meant that the most important things came into really sharp focus and I could really let the words loose on those images. It wasn’t always easy, and at times I doubted myself, but in many ways it helped.
Your young narrator, Gilly, abandons her newborn baby to flee with her boyfriend to the desert, for reasons we take a long time to understand. Maternal abandonment – and maternal ambivalence – are such taboo subjects. What drew you to explore them?
It was a combination of things. Motherhood is rarely as straightforward as the myths make out, and I like the challenge of writing about darker things. I like to ask, ‘What if?’ Women who leave their children are often demonised, and it’s so much more interesting and illuminating to ask why. I knew when I started writing Desert Fish that Gilly would leave her baby behind and that it wouldn’t look like the sort of abandonments you hear about on the news. I didn’t want her leaving her baby on a doorstep, or in a box, or anything like that. I didn’t want her actions to be violent or hasty, and I wanted her motivations to be complex.
‘You’d think it would be difficult, the not looking, the deliberately not seeing what’s right there in front of you,’ Gilly says. How important is this idea to the book, and to these characters?
Very important. The line you quote above came to me just as I was falling asleep one night and I had to get up and write it down. Lying is central to Gilly’s most important relationships and she’s learned to play along with these lies very early on, before she could even articulate what truth might mean. It’s not surprising that this practiced pretence is what she comes to expect when she tries to form relationships outside of her family. This is why she develops a sexual obsession with Pete. Their lovemaking represents a kind of truth for her. She believes it can’t stand for anything else.
I like the way you gradually let the reader in on the full story of Gilly and Pete’s relationship, interweaving their strangely sinister ride from the hospital to the desert with the back story of how Pete came to lodge with Gilly’s parents, and how they came together. We know things will not end well, but don’t know how or why. How much work did it take to get that balance between telling and teasing just right?
It took ages! But it was so satisfying to get there in the end. In a way, finding Gilly’s voice was the key; that, and settling on the event that leads to Pete coming to lodge with Gilly’s family. Once I knew why he was there, whenever something happened I could remind myself of where it had begun, and what was motivating Gilly, her mother and her father. When I began writing Desert Fish, I knew only one of the really important things that would happen at the end, but I didn’t know how it was going to come about and so I had to get to know the characters in order to work it all out. I’d have Pete saying or doing something, and then I’d think, no, that’s not right. (I was lucky to have some really good feedback throughout the drafting process – I go to an excellent writing group.) There was one really important thing involving Gilly and her baby that didn’t come into play until I’d all but finished and I had to go back over the whole thing and write it in properly. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it earlier. It pulled everything together for me and became a really important motivation for Gilly’s flight from the hospital.
Gilly is stuck in a claustrophobic intimacy with her parents, who inappropriately involve her in their private lives, from when she’s a young child. She talks of her father ‘including me in that way that I hated’ and her mother wanting her ‘to confide in her as though we were sisters’. What appealed to you about exploring a character in that situation? How does that affect Gilly’s actions?
I didn’t want any obvious abuse because often the things that cause harm in childhood can be so much more subtle than that. Children pick up on so much about adult relationships before they have the language to articulate what they’re seeing. It makes them very vulnerable. In Gilly’s case, being manipulated into a kind of participation means that her loyalties have to be divided and that although her participation is demanded, she has no control. Being the only child means there is no one else she can share this experience with. It makes her particularly lonely, but also, eventually, capable of causing harm as a result of the damage she suffers.
Gilly is a classic unreliable narrator – not only is she a practiced liar, but she lies expertly and consistently to herself, particularly about the truth of her relationship with Pete. What opportunities and challenges did this complex relationship with the truth present to you as a writer?
Habitual liars can be frustrating and alienating and I didn’t want Gilly to come across in this way. I wanted her to be a sympathetic character and I wanted the reader to share her journey to truth. So I had to make sure there was an element of self-awareness about her lying. I concentrated on making sure that she always built her lies on a grain of truth to make them believable to herself. That way, her lying could be understood to function as a form of self-preservation as much as anything else. It meant I could tell the story by peeling back the layers of her lies, taking apart her carefully constructed reality, until the only thing left was what was real.
You do a disturbingly effective job of rendering pregnancy and its aftermath strange, sinister and repulsive, reflecting Gilly’s feelings about it. You describe breast milk as ‘seeping like blood from a wound’ and her body as ‘occupied’ even after birth, for instance. As a mother of two, what was it like to write about the business of child-bearing in this light? And was it difficult to write that tortured relationship Gilly has with her baby?
That was part of the reason I gave Gilly a daughter – I have two sons – it gave me a bit of distance. But birth is an incredibly visceral, sometimes even brutal experience. If you didn’t know what to expect, or if you were actively in denial, I imagine it could be really disturbing. I remember being shocked by the experience of my first birth but I had no trouble bonding with my baby. I had never seen him before but I recognised him. I knew nothing about him except that I had produced him, but I loved him desperately nonetheless. I felt damp all the time and I smelled different and I couldn’t really see myself in the way that I had and I was surprised at how my body didn’t feel like it was straightforwardly mine any more.
When I was writing Desert Fish, I re-visited those memories and asked, ‘What if?’ I was in a happy stable relationship when I had my little boy, but what if I hadn’t been? I went to classes with my partner, I made friends who were also pregnant, I read lots of books about what would happen to my body, and I was still surprised at the experience of birth. What if I’d been only 17? What if I had no idea what to expect and then found myself on the other side of a difficult birth, longing for the father of my baby to show himself, and feeling like I was in a body that wasn’t mine any more. Then all those things that are supposed to be normal after a birth might feel strange and wrong. When I wrote Desert Fish, I reminded myself about that shocked feeling I had after the first time I gave birth. Writing Gilly’s experience was like pushing a wedge into that tiny fissure and forcing it open.
Who are some of the books and writers you admire? Were there any that influenced you in writing this book?
There are so many and I think they’ve all influenced me in some way. I love to read. I prefer to think in terms of favourite books, rather than favourite writers. I love Helen Dunmore’s book A Spell of Winter. I go back and re-read it every couple of years and I’d have to say that’s the one I picked up whenever I got stuck while writing Desert Fish. Her prose is really sensuous but never excessive and the story is so compelling, so layered. It really inspires me.
I love Kirsty Gunn’s first novel, Rain. It’s another one I return to regularly. It’s incredibly poetic. Kate Jennings’ novel Snake is really stylish and reminds me of how differently you might approach the business of telling a story. I think Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories are fantastic, her first collection, The Interpreter of Maladies is stunning. I read my first M.J. Hyland last year – Carry Me Down - and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read her before. I read her first novel right after and as soon as This Is How came out I stayed up all night reading it. Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black really haunted me and I love Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills and Never Let Me Go. I love Julie Myerson’s novel, Laura Blundy, Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice. Tim Winton’s The Riders too – I read it just a few weeks back and I couldn’t put it down. Sarah Waters. Susan Hill. Daphne du Maurier. Carson McCullers. Flannery O’Connor. Honestly, I could go on and on.