Alice Thompson: The Scottish Review of Books Interview

BORN IN EDINBURGH, Alice Thompson’s first artistic endeavour came not in literature but in popular music. After reading English at Oxford, she joined The Woodentops, a succès d’estime, as keyboardist in the mid-Eighties, touring with, amongst others, The Smiths and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In 1987, Thompson left the band to write, the first fruit of her endeavours, Killing Time, a novella (1990). Her first full-length novel, Justine was published in 1996. A sinister, sensual critique of male infatuation centred on twins who may in fact be the same person, Justine went on to co-win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize with Graham Swift’s Last Orders. Pandora’s Box (1998), her second novel, begins with a man discovering a woman on fire before the book morphs into a detective novel-come-road movie, although like one has never read before (or since). In 2000, Thompson was awarded a Creative Scotland Award. Pharos (2002) is a ghost story that takes place on a small island off the coast of early nineteenth century Scotland, on a lighthouse, where a dark secret connected to the slave trade threatens the inhabitants. Thompson’s new novel, The Falconer, is also set in Scotland, moving for ward to the Thirties and a remote Highland estate troubled by a legendary creature, the Beast. Investigating the mysterious death of her sister Daphne, Iris takes a job with its pro-Appeasement laird. Iris begins to feel her personality becoming more like her uninhibited sister’s was, leading her into encounters with the laird’s Nazi-sympathising son, Edward and the titular Falconer. Colin Waters met Alice in Edinburgh where she spoke about romance, plastic surgery, and David Lynch.

Scottish Review Of Books: Your new novel The Falconer begins, “The long train journey began to take on the form of a dream”. It’s a resonant first sentence, isn’t it, given the degree to which your books resemble a dream?

Alice Thompson: Pandora’s Box begins with the main character Noah waking up from a dream. A good way to read my books is as if they were dreams. I’m interested in symbolism, and dreams are symbols, just as words are symbols. I love the suspension of disbelief that’s required in a dream, and I suppose that is what I require from the reader of one of my books. The premises are often quite...I wouldn’t say extreme, but unreal. I like to create a world rather like the world of a dream. Within that unreality there is a certain kind of logic and inevitability about what happens. A story. Dreams, no matter how mad they seem when you experience them, seem like a story.

SRB: Dreams have an inner logic when you’re in them. But for readers, unless they’re willing to go with that, your books must be a strange, disorientating experience.

AT: A lot does depend on the reader. On the type of books they like. I was very influenced by fairy tales. Fairy tales expect you to believe in witches, and that a snow queen could turn your heart into ice. That’s the premise. If you are a more literal reader you’ll dismiss these fairy tales as trivial. Raymond Chandler once wrote “the spirit of an age is more essentially mirrored in its fairy-tales than in the most painstaking chronicle of a contemporary diarist”. The literature I tend to enjoy is symbolic. I love Hawthorne, Melville – nineteenth century American literature, where symbolism is seen as integral to the story. Nowadays there seems to be a fashion either for realism or for primary fantasy like the Harry Potter books. There’s a false polarity between ‘grown up’ masculine books and more child-like fantastical ones.

SRB: Fantasy is fine, I think I’m right in saying, with the majority of readers as long as it announces itself as such and doesn’t expect too much of its readers. In your books, however, the fantasy elements have a psychological depth which – am I right? – disturbs people.

AT: It is true. People do find my novels disturbing. They can’t fit them into a genre. It comes back to dreams. With dreams, one moment they seem realistic, next they go off at a tangent that’s surreal. But they always seem real at the time. I want my books to have that quality of dreams.

SRB: Like Pharos, The Falconer is set in Scotland again, though it’s a strange, remote Scottish (not urban) setting once more. Where Pharos took place on a small, remote island, we’re in the Highlands for The Falconer. What draws you to those locations?

AT: It’s the romantic in me. I’ve always been drawn to nature, and The Falconer began as a homage to the landscape of Scotland, just as Pharos was a homage to Shetland. Because I do fall in love with landscapes. Often a book will start with the landscape. It has to get under my skin, affect me. But in The Falconer I was not only portraying nature as a romantic idyll but looking at how nature can be exploited for ideological ends. The Nazis were expert at using the landscape of Germany to represent an idealized pagan Germany. The Bavarian forest became a place where German men were once warriors and at one with their animal nature. The German fascists used the powerful myth of their volkisch heritage for their own ends.

SRB: And London got under your skin in Justine?

AT: Yes. I had come down from Edinburgh and it was a new city, it seemed strange to me, very beguiling and oppressive. As someone not used to London, it had a lot of facets to it. A lot of writing is about controlling your world. Writing about London was a way of making sense of it. I like using landscape as a way of exploring ideas that the landscape suggests. But writing always begins for me with an emotion and landscape evokes certain feelings in me.

SRB: What was the emotion The Falconer sprung from?

AT: It began with a glen. I wanted to start off describing a glen. It’s a specific glen, Glen Artney in Perthshire. When I started the book, I was thinking, How can I make a story out of the glen? And then I discovered Kipling had gone there to recover from the death of his son in the First World War. I thought it interesting how a place that was so apparently romantic and beautiful could hold so much grief and history. So the theme of war came into the book. I began writing the first chapter, which begins with this woman on a train, and a man coming into her carriage. She was travelling up to the glen. I kept thinking, Who is this man? What’s he doing in this carriage? Why does he recognise her? And so the story unfolded out of that, an unconscious occurrence.

SRB: So where does Pandora’s Box take place?

AT: That’s the book of mine nearest to science fiction. It takes place in a kind of America. I spent some time in America in 1995. I thought Las Vegas was such an extraordinary place I wanted to write about it. Pandora’s Box is a kind of road movie across America. Unlike my other books which are quite claustrophobic and restrained to one area, Pandora’s Box is more of a journey, which was liberating. It’s quite hard to write a book set in one place because all the action has to come to that one place. For The Falconer I did think of setting a scene on Gruinard Island where tests for biological weapon took place for employment in the Second World War, but rejected the scene because it took you out of the dream-like internal logic of the glen.

SRB: It’s interesting the ways in which Pandora’s Box anticipates David Lynch’s film, Mullholland Drive by three years.

AT: Funny you should say that. There was a film option taken out on Pandora’s Box in America and I did wonder in a mad moment if Lynch had read it. I love that film; you see it and you realise how conventional other movies are. It’s weird; the heroines even find a box that they go through into another world. Mullholland Drive and Pandora’s Box share a sense of the dream-like, which Lynch is so brilliant at evoking. Also something else I liked about that film is the understanding of something in retrospect. Sometimes a work of art can be complex and you can only understand it after you finish it. People often like to understand things as they happen, but David Lynch is not going to make it so easy.

SRB: There’s a preoccupation in both Pharos and The Falconer with civilisation and the primitive. We’ve spoken about the landscape as a character; in these two books, Pharos’ lighthouse and The Falconer’s castle are emblematic buildings when we examine the often thin dividing line between civilisation and the primitive.

AT: Again it comes back to my interest in symbolism, and particularly how people like William Golding used symbolism. He loved symbolism – The Spire, and the terrible pig’s head in Lord Of The Flies. Notions of civilisation are central to The Falconer, that Freudian battle between civilisation and desire. These things come disguised. Fascism came disguised as a coherent ideology, very logical, which comes to disastrous conclusions, final solutions. On the other hand, the journey of Iris through this glen is very much one of the rationalist who begins to understand the importance of passion. You can’t have one without the other. But if as in fascism, you try to eradicate anything deemed imperfect or irrational, while also fetishising war-like instincts, terrible catastrophe occurs.

SRB: Interesting you should call yourself a romantic earlier on as Nazism was in its origins a Romantic creed.

AT: Absolutely. And Germany’s idealisation of the forest and the beauty of the perfect form were pernicious. It’s a terrible form of Romanticism. I suppose it’s how romanticism is exploited that’s the problem, not the idea per se. As in religion, it’s how these things are used. I do think there is something within ourselves that desires ritual and mystery, and I think it’s a mistake to dismiss them out of hand. The need for ritual and mystery is a blueprint of the soul in a way.

SRB: Are you a little sympathetic if not to Appeasement than to the Appeasers?

AT: One of the inspirations for the book was The Remains Of The Day. I wanted to recast that. Ishiguro does give an understandable and accurate portrayal of how the aristocrats affiliated themselves with the Nazis. It’s a very damning portrait. I wanted to look at Appeasement in a more sympathetic way. In the light of what has happened in Iraq, I wanted to try and understand more fully the Appeasers’ resistance to war. At the time the novel is set, Appeasement was not a dirty word. Chamberlain was feted on his return from Munich. So I wanted to give a different perspective, not to demonise Appeasement entirely. I was aware of the ease with which we went to war in Iraq, whereas people in the Thirties were reluctant to go to war, despite Hitler being far more militaristically aggressive than Saddam Hussein.

SRB: The Tempest epigraph for The Falconer could have applied to Pharos as well, an island story with a shipwreck and a Prospero figure.

AT: The Falconer particularly is about transformation, whether it be Iris’s psychological journey or Hitler’s transformation of Germany, his giving to the German people a story of Germany they could believe in. Story-telling is endlessly fascinating, because you’re transforming all the time, you’re creating a world then rewriting it then recreating it. Transformation is the perpetual motion of the writer.

Picture of Alice Thompson

SRB: Iris says at one point, “As long as we have reason, we have nothing to fear. Reason will always master emotion”. Your books however register scepticism of this?

AT: She’s setting herself up for a fall there. Somehow people think that if you have reason everything will fall into place. Whereas emotion is much more anarchic. Going back to what we were saying earlier, I’m interested in Romanticism because it is about that anarchic quality to our lives, which can be uncontrollable and we dismiss that at our peril. We have to respect these instinctive drives. Not to be enslaved by them – but not deny them either.

SRB: Yes, reason can be often unreasonable. Hume was in favour of slavery based on what must have seemed sound principles.

AT: At the end of the book when Iris confronts Edward over his fascist affiliations, he calls her insane because she’s hysterical. But it is Edward who is really the mad one. I wanted Edward to be a Du Maurier-ish character – a conventional romantic hero of the Thirties. But beneath this strong, saturnine hero in fact lies a deep irrationality.

SRB: The thing about the Nazis, if you read someone like Wilhelm Reich, is that fascism grew out of a perverted or frustrated expression of the same sexual impulse.

AT: I’ve watched footage of Hitler giving speeches and I’ve tried to figure out where this power over the German people came from. To me, it has something to do with words. It comes back to the power of stories, of their centrality to our lives. There’s a part of our brain that lights up when we read stories. I love narrative, and there’s a lot of fiction around today that isn’t so interested in story. I was brought up on stories, read a lot of detective novels, Agatha Christie. The detective novel is an archetypal form of story. I think Hitler’s exploitation of story reveals the power of it.

SRB: Your four novels are essentially detective novels.

AT: That’s right. In fact the one I’m working on now is the first one I have a grown up detective in, though Pandora’s Box had a psychic detective in it. I love the working out of it all, that continual state of uncertainty.

SRB: In the twentieth century the detective was quite an emblematic character.

AT: It’s a way of making order out of chaos. You’re presented in a murder story with a death, and death after all is the most unreasonable thing that can ever happen to us. The story tries to make sense of that for us, to make it safe.

SRB: If the detective was an emblematic character of the twentieth century, then one might argue the plastic surgeon is an emblematic character of the twenty-first century. Whereas the detective solves death, the plastic surgeon solves life, through eternal youth. Pandora’s Box brought both roles together in the same character.

AT: There’s an awful web site at the moment called Bimbo in which young girls are encouraged to act like a bimbo, to get diet pills and plastic surgery. Girls as young as nine.

SRB: A recent poll of teenage reading habits found their number one read was Heat magazine. Number two was Bliss magazine, and number three was computer game cheats, which takes us back to fantasy.

AT: But so do numbers one and two. Young girls read the magazines and source the idea of a fantasy woman who is perfect and unblemished and surgically enhanced.

SRB: I suppose we’re more surrounded by fantasy than we realise. Moving on, there’s an awareness in your first three books of the toxicity of the male gaze – and anger too – the heroine of Killing Time, one of first thing she does is slap a man on the tube for looking at her legs.

AT: Gender is an important part of my earlier books. In Justine and Pandora’s Box there is a questioning of narrow categories. Justine recasts de Sade’s misogynistic gaze. It was a preoccupation of mine.

SRB: It’s quite bold of you as a young writer to give your first novel Justine the same name as not one but two well known books.

AT: It was a deliberate revision of de Sade, but it was only after I’d written the book that someone told me about Lawrence Durrell’s book. As soon as I found out about it, I read Durrell’s Justine, and again there’s an idealisation of a woman. Very romantic, these male writers who have these fantastical women. It’s so commonplace. That takes us back to what you were saying about fantasy being everywhere. If you look at contemporary male writer’s depiction of women, it’s so often one-dimensional. Henry James is one of the few male writers who really could do women.

SRB: You did your PhD on Henry James. Did he influence your fiction?

AT: There’s a brilliant ambiguity to his writing. He was a genius at leaving things out, leaving the space between the lines. His portrayal of women, particularly in something like The Golden Bowl, is a tour de force. He was interested in female consciousness, interested in how women think. That’s exceptional in male fiction. A lot of contemporary depictions of women by men are laughable, though you might be able to say the same of women writers and their male characters. But I have to say many of my favourite writers are men – Raymond Chandler, Scott Fitzgerald, JG Ballard.

SRB: Even in Killing Time, there’s a foreshadowing of Justine in that line about “They want to change you into someone else”. For me the pre-eminent example in pop culture of the way in which men try to change women is Vertigo which is the date movie the narrator and Juliette go to in Justine. That’s an interesting theme in the way in which men want to change women to some sort of ideal. Justine takes revenge on that impulse, doesn’t it?

AT: Yes. Justine deals with the power of the male gaze but also subvert it. You can have all these contradictions in a novel that you can’t have in a scientific treatise or a book on social anthropology. In a way Justine is a paean to obsession at the same time as questioning the singularity of its vision.

SRB: The thing about the male gaze is that while it can be dangerous and confining to those women upon who it falls, it also leaves the man vulnerable to exploitation, which is what happens in Justine.

AT: The paradox at the heart of the relationship between men and women is that women can have an incredible power over men yet also be oppressed by that same power. Both interpretations are true, they coexist. That’s why novels are so powerful, because they can hold two apparently contradictory ideas together.

SRB: Killing Time features twins, with Iris and Daphne in The Falconer returning us to Justine and its sisters. All these sibling relationships are unhappy ones, and both involve some shadowing of one sister by the other (remembering Justine/Juliette may be same person). Is there something about sibling relationships that attracts your imagination?

AT: I’m interested in the way people project their own emotions onto others. You could argue, if you’re particularly solipsistic, that other people are just projections of your own feelings – that’s an extreme stance. I’m interested in whether you can categorise people, whether you ever can fully sympathise with them. What’s interesting about siblings is that they’re like you but they are not. In The Falconer you have the repressed sister Iris, and Daphne the extrovert. And you could argue that the sensual aspect of Daphne is just the other side of Iris. Daphne represents the aspects of Iris’ character that have been repressed. And as during the novel Iris starts to become more and more like Daphne, so her character becomes more rounded.

SRB: Curiosity in all four of your novels is shown to lead to dangerous consequences, as does passion – do you ever worry one could put a conservative interpretation on your fiction?

AT: Well, curiosity is the price you pay for your romanticism. As the epigraph I use in Pandora’s Box puts it, “he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow”. I do think that’s fundamental to life. Curiosity is just the price we pay for our humanity, and if you want to be fully human you have to be curious.

SRB: Are you interested in character, or in type? Like myths or dreams you deal in psychological types which come to acquire depth through action and story, rather than through the mechanics of the classic realist text.

AT: That’s a really accurate description of what I do. My characters often become representations of emotions or ideas. Hopefully they become more than that but I’m always aware of the limitations of any characterisation.

SRB: What was the process by which you ended up on Two Ravens Press [publisher of The Falconer]?

AT: It was a piece of good fortune. Virago, who had published my three previous novels, didn’t want to publish the book. I saw an article in the Herald talking about Two Ravens Press and thought it would be great to be published by a Scottish publisher. It’s difficult being published by a London publisher in a way because you are more disconnected, geographically. I sent the book off to Sharon Blackie and she replied immediately. It was a blow when Virago didn’t want the book. It made me realise how obsessive I am about writing. I’d started my next novel and I thought why am I writing this, it might not be published. But I just wanted to write it. It made me realise why I write, so in a way it was a good thing to happen.

SRB: Talking of not realising the level of fantasy that surrounds us, you wonder at times just what world the publishing industry exists in.

AT: It is a weird world, the publishing world. I think unless you’re in it and working as a publisher, it’s difficult to work out what’s going on. It’s taken me a while to understand the variables and the politics of it all. Being a writer you tend to be up there in your ivory tower and it’s taken me a while to understand the importance of pragmatism.

  • Cover scan of The Falconer
    The Falconer - Paperback
    A backdrop of impending war and the spectre of Nazi Germany loom over this strange, dark tale. What ensues is a battle between instinct and reason, fantasy and history.
Scottish Review of Books Vol 4 Number 2

This interview first appeared in the Scottish Review of Books, Volume 4 Number 2.