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Interview with Carmen Marcus

3 October 2017

Interview by Charlotte Cooper

Carmen Marcus’ How Saints Die tells the story of 10-year old Ellie Fleck. When her mother suffers a breakdown, Ellie’s world is cracked apart like a shell, and becomes suddenly strange – full of magic and wolves and the whispering sea.

As a poet what made you venture into novel writing? Did you find it a challenging shift in form?

I’m afraid I’m not loyal to form; I’ll pack up a story in any container that fits. Sometimes poetry, sometimes prose and I really love flash fiction. That said, I didn’t think I had time for a novel until I started writing 30,000-word funding bids at work. My mind shifted and bigger writing projects seemed possible. In 2010 I joined Writers Block North East, determined to get serious about writing, there was an emphasis on film and I mapped out How Saints Die as a screenplay initially and began writing. I wrote about what I knew – being a fisherman’s daughter, the night waders at dusk. My mentor liked what was emerging but said I should try writing the story as a novel, that way the descriptive passages that were just scene direction could remain. That was the first inkling it was a going to be a novel. Approaching the story as a screenplay demanded that the language was sharp, sparse and visual – it invited a poetic approach.

The form change wasn’t initially daunting (the fear came later with the second draft) as I’d mapped out the beats using a screenplay structure. Writing to a plan removes the initial terror of the blank page. At the time of writing the first draft I had a two-hour commute. So I’d copy the beat for that week into my notebook and write by hand, on the boneshaker train each morning. When ideas slowed I’d use the time for research reading. I still use those beats when developing a story now and have used them for narrative poetry. I miss long train journeys for focused imaginative attention and poor wi-fi signals.

Can you tell us a bit about where the idea for How Saints Die came from?

You know that bit in Jane Eyre when Rochester asks Jane for her ‘tale of woe’ and she’s says she doesn’t have one. Well I felt like Jane for a long time. I defiantly did not want to tell my tale of woe. The tale of a child watching her mother break down, the cold reaction of the community, the bullying that comes with a lack of understanding. That would be a story of damage and be damaging to tell. It wasn’t until I was older and realised how strong my mother was to survive and also how strangely powerful and beautiful my memories of that time were because of the delicate nurture my father showed me. I lost my father when I was just nineteen and I resisted telling this story until I was ready to go back to a world where he was alive. I realised what made my story one of strength and transformation was its mythic counterparts – stories of selkies and sea gods. By taking the real and layering it over a mythic inner structure this tale of woe became a tale of strength and survival, a story I could tell.

What inspired the magical use of seaside folklore and superstition in the novel?

My father was born in 1920, he was 56 when I was born. He grew up in a traditional fishing family, on Fisherman’s Square and to him the sea was a power beyond man and god. I grew up knowing that my father and his brothers never learned to swim but they survived World War 2 in the Navy because my great grandfather had once, through love and pity, rescued a sea god. They survived out of luck and love. This family myth became the root story for Ellie and her father. My mother is Irish and for her the dead are always close by, every Halloween she would put out treats for those who had passed away, light a light and leave the window open for a visit. As a child other worlds were only an open window away. This became the root story for Ellie and her mother.

I happily lost myself in sea lore research to create Ellie’s world; discovering more about selkies and fishing superstitions. But the idea for the wolves of water was one of those book-magic events. I was at an Arvon course for beating creative demons in Lumbbank. At the time I hadn’t got an agent and was worried my writing was a fool’s dream. I couldn’t sleep and I pottered down to the library where I found a Louis Macneice collection. I read it purely for the rhythm to soothe my worries. The poem ‘Wolves’ jumped out at me. I was worried about fully committing to the fabulist element in my story, embodied by the wolf l, and here was Macneice calling across time and imagination, telling me there were ‘wolves of water / Who howl along our coast’. I took it as a sign to keep going.

I find it interesting that writers who were writing from a place of trauma or scarcity, like Edgar Allan Poe or the Brontës chose to tell their stories slant-wise, jumping the fence between real and fable. I believe this is because the mythic world is essential to the story of transformation. My story is about the point at which Ellie’s childhood is ruptured but it is the story of survival not disintegration. In psychology, a child can create a paracosm; a fantastical world where it is possible to process loss. Both Ellie and I needed to create an inbetween place where grief, loss and fear could be faced. This would require a mythical sea wolf. Although I recently discovered sea wolves are a real species.

How did you manage to channel a childhood voice so effectively without compromising on the target adult audience?

 I had to take myself back to my child self. I did this physically – I walked home to my mum’s house, past my old primary school, through changing seasons. The act of following those old routes summoned back the child in me and I wrote so much after those walks.

I also used significant objects. I have a box, like Ellie’s ‘box of broken things’, full of childhood drawings, school books, my dad’s net needles. These things are as powerful as a time machine.

I read good YA fiction, David Almond, Diana Wynne Jones, Patrick Ness. This brought me back to the child’s voice and perspective. I also read fiction from a child’s perspective, Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’, studying the balance between child voice and adult self-reflection.

Working with my editor we decided to include glimpses of adult perspectives. These momentary flashes of Ellie’s father’s worry, her mother’s electroconvulsive therapy and her neighbour’s judgement of the family remind us of how terrifyingly vulnerable Ellie is from the adult’s perspective. But we also see how the adults have no solutions to the crises that emerge. The more the adults fall apart the more substance this gives to Ellie’s fantasy world, this is both inspiring and dangerous.

I asked what makes a story an adult story, and sometimes it’s theme, sometimes it’s voice but ultimately I have no answer – my favourite fiction is fabulist and that’s a trickster genre that doesn’t care who it’s writing for or who’s reading just as long as they give themselves to the story.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

I’m working on my debut poetry collection. As a performance poet it’s very different writing for the page and trying to carry that energy and vulnerability across.

I’m also working on my next novel but it’s such a strange little bud it’s too new to talk about.

Do you have any advice or experience you’d like to pass on to aspiring writers?

Learn how to steal time to write. There’s always time. Even when you’re stuck in a queue you can think of your story. I’m writing this answer at 4.28am with my thumb, on my phone.

Thank you Carmen for taking the time to answer my questions! Carmen Marcus will be appearing at Durham Book Festival alongside Polly Clark in Poetic Fictions on Sunday 15 October, 11.45am-12.45pm. To hear more about her magical and moving debut novel, book tickets here.