Back in November, I was interviewed by the wonderful Jane Alexander (you can find the original interview here) about my novel, The Sky is Not Blue.
Reading the BBC news pages today and seeing the devastating pictures of Porthleven harbour – the town that inspired my fictitious one in Sky – pounded and breached by a furious sea, reminded me of a line I wrote about that very thing (how the sea still crashes over when angry enough) and I then remembered I’d never posted the interview here on my website. So here it is!
Practicalities first. There is a very real sense of place in the book, of this small seaside town. Was it inspired by anywhere in particular? I can’t help but think of St Ives in Cornwall with its wild coast and connection with art. What is it about seaside towns for you? I know they are a bit of a passion.
I think place can be as much a character as any person in a story. It influences how situations will pan out – put people and problems into different settings and you’ll get quite different outcomes. For me, seaside towns and their particular influence are a quiet obsession. Perhaps it’s their rhythm, how they ebb and flow seasonally, or because they seem to sit on the edge of a vast nothing. Or maybe it’s just their faded quality, the way they echo a very different past. I don’t really know, but they do fascinate me (in fact my next book is also set in a seaside town!).
The Cornish coast influenced this story. I wrote chunks of descriptive narrative for Sky in Porthleven, on holiday one year. I’d wander down and sit at the harbour in the evening – absorbing sight, sound and smell – it was bliss. The unused Victorian lifeboat house there was a muse, and yes, there’s a bit of St Ives in the mix too, whereas the cliff-top scenes were inspired by a wonderful bramble-strewn path above Portscatho, further along the coast.
The central image that runs through the book is that of flying. What does that mean to you? Is it a symbol of freedom? Escape from a mundane world that is bound to disappoint? Or does it have some other, more personal, resonance?
Flying is maybe about growth as much as escape – a stretching out to find more – but yes, here it also signifies desperation, a deluded hopelessness, an act of reckless stupidity.
I suffer from vertigo so, for me, flying is both excitement and fear. I wanted that duplicity for my characters. I wanted them to be equally possessed of hope and despair, their angst manifesting in an extreme situation – a life-changing act – with, as said above, their specific setting providing a very specific outcome.
Life is seen through filters throughout Sky – through art, music, a camera lens, and memory. Do we filter life? How do you filter your own life?
I think we filter in various ways, consciously and subconsciously, both in what we give of ourselves and what we absorb of others. It’s a simultaneous two-way thing, our perceptions and filters influencing in both directions throughout life.
Artists/musicians/photographers and the like interpret what they see or feel to reflect their own individual perceptions – driven by their own filters – and we then interpret their interpretations using our own personal filters… it’s a labyrinth – a complex Hall of Mirrors.
Photography, for me, is particularly fascinating because what’s captured appears to be absolute, to be real, yet of course it’s not.
Memory is another theme of course. Chrissy questions her memory and the events of the pivotal night when she and Pat stood facing the ocean on the top of the old lifeboat house. But it’s not just that central memory that constantly shifts and changes, and it seems meaningful that Malc’s father has Alzheimer’s; that Alice is the preserver of sacred memory – the hoarder maybe. Where is memory held – in wallpaper and carpet, in music, in photographs? Does it matter if we can’t remember ‘the truth’?
If flawed memories only ever caused pain and accurate memories only ever brought joy, then finding the truth would be vital. But they don’t. They hurt and salve in equal measure, and pinpointing the truth is nigh on impossible, so maybe it’s more important to reserve the greater effort to the now than try so hard to catch and contain something as elusive as Truth.
And, of course, at heart there is no ‘truth’ and memory is fallible. Chrissy says: ‘As any photographer can tell you, reality is a perception. The pleasure of the camera is its capacity for illusion.’ And again…‘The water is not blue. The sky is not blue. I’m not even sure the hills are green.’ What is reality for you? Are you a quantum fantasist or a pragmatic ‘realist’?
Ha ha, I quite like the sound of being a “quantum fantasist”. I don’t know what I am. Benefit of being ambidextrous/equal-sided brain-wise and a Libran is, I think, a tendency to change my mind as often as my underwear.
I’m not sure there is a definitive reality. It’s just what we imagine it to be at any given time. Trick is, I reckon, to stay flexible enough to not constrain oneself in some permanent obstinate state. Growth is all. Change is good. The sky isn’t actually blue, but as long as it looks blue then that’s okay, right? We like blue skies, so let’s have them!
At one point Chrissy says ‘…if I had to describe my teenage years in one word, it would be surreal.’ Is that the word you’d use for your own teenage years? Sky is astute on the question of teenage friendships and feelings. How much did you call on your own memories of your own teens?
There was something of the mousy haired girl in me as a teen, yes. I imagine there is in many people – that sense of slight inadequacy when growing up. It’s part of that process of finding your way, and so vital at that point what influences come in.
Chrissy doesn’t realise her own potential – her own validity – in the shine of her friend Pat and her lover Spencer. She’s as vital as anyone but her unhappy home life maybe leaves her more vulnerable to the awkwardness of teenage years, and thus more vulnerable to the input from these two close friends.
I wasn’t the most stable teen, but I wasn’t the most unstable either. I knew a Pat or two. I can’t say they did me any favours, but it could be argued that without them I’d not have had as much material for this book.
In many ways, Sky is a dark book, with a deep sense of futility and hopelessness running through. Spencer is the arch nihilist of course. ‘Pointless, purposeless lives. Why do they not see it?’ he says watching the supposedly happy holidaymakers. ‘They look like ants, they behave like ants – pre-programmed to reproduce, pre-disposed to spend their brief lives replicating the actions of millions before them. What they call enjoyment is a social construction to justify and soothe and make it seem a valid passing of time. They can’t see their own stupidity because they don’t want to see it.’ It’s a view that Chrissy catches, like a virus. ‘We humans are nothing more than upright carnivores who captivate, copulate, replicate and die. The complexities with which we pass the time, justify our presence, convince ourselves we’re different, are a delusion.’
It chimes with me but do you share a view that many would see as bleak?
It is a bleak view but I don’t think it necessarily means life is dire. I’m not a nihilist. I subscribe more to the theory (I think it was Niezsche) that we should accept futility but perpetuate the pretence of purpose, revel in the knowledge we are advanced enough to recognise it as futile but optimistic enough to make the best of it. I’ve paraphrased madly there – don’t want to spend time looking it up as I’ll just get horribly distracted – but basically, it says accepting our futility is an academic exercise, choosing to live on in it is a spiritual one.
So, I believe we should enjoy life, futile though it may be. We are merely carnivores who captivate, copulate, replicate and die… the trick is to enjoy doing it. The other options are pointlessly dark.
There is also a cynicism that comes through about the role of Love (capitalised in the book). Chrissy talks about Alice spending sixty years alone because her heart was broken with what seems like incredulity and even disdain. She talks about the great illusion, the delusion of life. ‘The only way to tolerate the delusion is to accept that without Love, whatever we perceive it to be, we have no protection from the ultimate truth – our pointlessness.’ Can love/Love life-proof us in any way? Or is that really just another delusion, a trick Nature plays on us to make sure we reproduce?
Love is a social construction. Reproduction is a biological drive. Attracting a partner is a biological drive – we are slaves to our innate purpose here. Love, this thing we have created, is a magnificent invention, and yes it’s vital now, I think. Of all human achievements we praise, we seem to ignore how humans invented Love – what a feat!
It’s not nature’s trick though. Nature permits us to fornicate wildly. It’s evolved civilisation that’s necessitated the delusion. As civilised beings, we must temper our innate urge to fuck, constrain it within the context of ‘Love’, the subfolder “monogamy” in fact. Would we prefer to be like other animals?? Do we collectively regret this conception of Love? No, I don’t think so… it’s sublime. It’s led to a whole raft of poetry, lyrics, fiction and everyday people living everyday lives – what would we do without it??
Animals don’t (to my knowledge!) have poetry. That’s the real price of freedom to fuck, is it not?
‘When we take off our elegant clothes and lie on our high status beds, we fuck and grunt like all the other animals. It’s the only purpose we have.’
Do you agree?
Ha, yes, see last question. Of course this is our biological purpose (though nothing explains the why of it) but acceptance of this fact doesn’t mean we can’t relax and enjoy the construct of Love.
Let’s pretend. Why not?
I do wish, though, we were slightly less uptight about the whole thing. We’ve gone (as a western species) from rampant acceptance of our biological urges, to Victorian repression of them, to a supposed liberation (60s, 70s), and ultimately this hideous modern obsession with sex – for all the ‘wrong’ reasons – whereby we pretend we’re au fait with it all, very post-Victorian, and yet actually are more screwed up now than I think we probably were in 1813.
It’s a shame. Sex is glorious, our urges are glorious, our determination – as civilised citizens – to constrain our urges is glorious (if not amusing, but that’s glorious too)… so why aren’t we happy? Why are we so utterly ashamed and confused and scared, still??
None of this has anything to do with my book, of course, which is almost sex-scene free really, but perhaps that’s because I’m reluctant to explore it in fiction because it’s being done endlessly, almost an expectation, certainly a modern whim, and I don’t want to be part of that. But perhaps, too, it’s because such things are SO innate they can’t accurately be captured in text and are best left to the imagination and reality of readers, rather than foisted on them as the decade’s writerly meme.
Even art can’t hold back the tide. ‘No matter what can be achieved – no matter how much of anything can be achieved – we are nothing in the end. Gone. No more than a good idea, a fleeting muse. Even the mavericks. Even the creators. It doesn’t matter what the something was when all that remains is debris – the image of a burning guitar, a smooth granite orb, words that will never be fully understood. It’s all debris in the end.’
And yet you continue to write, to create. Why do we bother to make art in a meaningless world?
Ah, because anyone who’s remotely interested – in their own narrow viewpoint – would recognise that I’m talking about Morrison, Hepworth and Joyce. For as long as one person remembers the creator of a work, then Chrissy’s negative view about “debris” is wrong.
This is a very visual book. Aside from the radio, there is little music and the one quote comes from Leonard Cohen. J Is the sound of sea and sky the true soundtrack of the book?
There’s a part of me that would love to do a soundtrack – music/lyrics are hugely important in the process of inspiration and writing. But equally there’s a part of me knows how bored other folk get with others foisting their choices and favourites and opinions on the world. Maybe readers should just read a story for what it is – a thing isolated from its creator..?
But the sound of the sea is what I’d hope the reader would hear. I’d play the glorious refrain from Tristan und Isolde – a Wagnerian score which captures the repetitive beat, and orgasmic return, of the sea better than any other musical piece I know. But Tristan und Isolde is a story of its own – perhaps this is why it’s hard to find music to fit a novel? Each musical piece already has a story, an attachment. But the sound of the sea, crashing endlessly against granite, is very much the sound of my story: nothing my character, Chrissy, experienced after came close, for her, to that sound of the end… the beat of a winter tide, angry against rock, furious in its greed and purpose.
‘It’s the vastness I love,’ says Spencer. ‘The sea, the sky, the sheer bloody space.’ ‘It’s the vastness I fear,’ says Chrissy. Do you love or fear the vastness?
Both. One of the best things about writing is being able to justify having conflicting viewpoints.
Marion sees it differently, of course. ‘(happiness)…is this,’ Marion pointed towards the family, waved an arm at the sky, still blue, still sunny. ‘It’s all this. Things that make us smile, laugh, a good wine, the chance to sit and relax.’ Are these small things, these ‘in the moment, of the moment’ things and realisations the only way to get through? Is there any hope?
There’s always hope if a person wants it.
Marion is a conscience. She’s the adherent, loyal subject in a world where abidance by the rules prevails. She’s blindly accepting, socially vital, willing to conform and perpetuate Life’s petty purpose. At times, I wish I were more like her. I love her and hate her in equal measure, in fact, and found her hard to write, because she’s a conscience. She tries hard not to question life. Even in her darkest moments – where she feels, for a moment, regret – she battles it, vanquishes it.
She’s almost a mantra, really. There’s no guarantee she wholly believes what she spouts. Yes, the small things are what can make a day seem worthwhile, can make a person feel happy, and yes, it can be good to be reminded of this, and yes, it gives us hope. But perhaps our failure here is in expecting happiness to be a fixed state of being. Which, even if possible, would surely be inadvisable as it’d leave a person with no measure, no contrast. We’d become incredibly complacent.
So we need the Marions of this world to remind us to pause, reflect and enjoy the simple things. And maybe we should all strive a little harder to be this person, but not worry too much if we fail, and – maybe more importantly – not let the mantra stop us living life passionately, because there’s a risk too that our conscience can act as a sedative and we end up living a bland version of happiness and thinking it all that’s possible… and if we all lived like that, where would poetry be then?
The last line is this: ‘Their fury is endless.’ Talk us through that?
Things carry on. Regardless of human ego, the world continues to turn – we are but a blip in time. The waves will pound – they don’t change – we may put things in their way, but their sole purpose remains… they are waves, they pound – it’s what they do.
In respect of this story, the waves continue to pound no matter what else has happened, how many people’s lives have changed, how many folk try to do things, how many lifeboat houses are left unused, abandoned, despite their initial aim to help man harness the sea – the sea continues to pound, against any object man may put in its way, it cares not about silly girls on a cold roof on a winter’s night.
Nature wins. And perhaps that’s the core: man’s intent on social construction cannot defeat the purpose of ‘nature’… which is just to continue to exist, to repeat, to perpetuate itself.
Even though I am sure The Sky is Not Blue would have found a mainstream publisher quite easily, you made a very definite decision to publish with Mad Bear Books, an indie publisher with which you are yourself closely involved. Can you explain why?
Mad Bear was originally set up by Freddie (Omm) and I was merely a sounding board at that time with no coherent thought of going the same route. But I’d already gone off the idea of mainstream publishers by then – mainly because the demands made on writers, to produce and conform, didn’t seem to necessarily be reflected in the returns most of them could expect to see for that effort.
I helped Freddie get Honour ready for publication through Mad Bear in early 2012 and found it an incredibly satisfying process. Between us we have a set of skills well-suited to publishing, have similar thoughts on the strengths independent publishers have over their counterparts in the big publishing houses, and feel equally passionate about the importance of putting out quality products. The synergy was there, we worked well together and it was fun.
So my involvement grew. I saw how publishing through an independent, and being very much in control of that process, would be way more satisfying to me than being a puppet of some large publishing house with a commerce-focused bunch of shareholders to satisfy, and thus I did it!
What other books will Mad Bear publish? Tell us about your vision for the company.
We have lots on the go! The absolute beauty of being in control is the freedom to decide when and what we do, and to be able to select the sort of projects large publishing houses can’t touch for fear of no immediate financial return. We both earn a living in other ways, so what we do with Mad Bear Books is purely for the love of all things literary.
Next up is Freddie’s new thriller, The Trashman, now in the process of final edits, followed by my next novel, a dark comedy, The Town that Danced. Freddie’s also doing the first proper translation into English of a novel by Eduard von Keyserling, Wellen (Waves), which will be published initially in instalments on the Mad Bear website. Meanwhile, I’m working on a hefty and exciting project with a local artist to create a coffee-table style book, about women’s relationships with their breasts, which will raise money for cancer research.
We plan to publish poetry – another area where the small publisher can put literary pleasure over cash – and we’re very interested in an historical novel about a gay Chinese pirate, being written by a chap called Dickie, an English tour guide in Hong Kong. It’s based on a real-life character, set during the opium wars – Victorian high politics meets low down smuggling of drugs, contraband, and humans – and is the sort of unusual and unique offering we think well-suited to the Mad Bear stable.
That’s just the start of it – lots of stuff. And that’s what non-mainstream publishing is about: doing things because we can. It’s great.
And what next from Sandie Zand?
As above. My next book is a dark comedy – The Town that Danced – inspired by stories of dancing plagues. It’s about a town tipped into madness and how far people will go when society’s constraints are relaxed. After Sky¸ which was dark in a less fun way, it’s been a lot of fun to write barking mad characters and humorous scenes – and good to reign in my natural tendency to put heart and open veins on the page for all to see, I think. For now, at least…