Adam Foulds is a British novelist and poet. His most recent books are The Quickening Maze, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Encore Award and the European Union Prize for Literature, and The Broken Word, which won the Costa Poetry Award and the Somerset Maugham Award. He has recently been awarded the E.M. Forster Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.
Shauna Kosoris: Many of your books deal with modern (or relatively modern) historical events. What attracts you to this time period?
Adam Foulds: That really varies with each book. I can give specific answers about why I got interested in, say, the subject matter for The Broken Word. That had to do with learning about that history for the first time, which I did all at once when a couple of books were published about those events in Kenya. I hadn’t known about the conflict at all. Obviously that’s partly my fault. But also there was a silence about these events in Britain that seemed deliberate, an act of repression. I was very intrigued and kind of disturbed and sort of found myself wanting to write my way through it, to have my own reckoning with that bit of history. And that late Empire period of Britain, the decolonization and sort of post war period, is something I’m certainly still interested in. That’s when what’s left of the Empire is kind of coming apart and being dismantled, which seems like a very interesting set of stories to me. It feels like restless history, partly untold, ignored.
SK: Have you considered writing about more ancient history?
AF: No. I haven’t. Maybe one day. There are books like The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch and Memories of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar that fictionalise ancient history that I like very much.
SK: Fair enough. Going back to contemporary history then, you’ve said that you wanted to contribute to breaking the silence around the events of Mau Mau in Kenya. Do you think The Broken Word was successful in doing so?
AF: The extent to which that happened is kind of unquantifiable but maybe in its small way. It sold relatively very well for a poem, certainly in the UK, and therefore that’s X thousand people who, whether they knew about this stuff before, they know about it now to some extent through the poem. There were much more visible and important events than the poem pertaining to these events in the last few years. A case for damages against the British government was brought by Kenyan survivors of torture in the internment camps which was won by those victims. That was an important cultural moment: the British government acknowledging responsibility. Damages will be awarded to those people. A fund is being set up to help other survivors. And I think a monument is being paid for by the British government that will go up in Nairobi. So The Broken Word sort of happened a bit before and alongside an important shift in the proper acknowledgement of the nature of these events by the British government.
SK: Why did you choose to write The Broken Word as a poem?
AF: For a number of reasons. I thought I might write a set of connected short stories, then realized that I only really wanted to tell Tom’s story. I didn’t then think I’m going to write it as a poem particularly. But I knew that I wanted to write lines along the page partly because it’s such a useful technical resource for writing violence (of which there’s obviously a lot in the poem). It gives you this very precise control of the way the reader moves through the action that you’re describing. And you can use that line break in all kinds of ways: you can use it to suddenly stop something, you can put nasty surprises around the corner of a line break, and you can give the sense of something kind of running on uncontrollably; that was very useful. Also I knew I wanted to write it in a very stripped down, hard and sort of classical sense. I was looking at Homer and classical drama and so I wanted something that’s very visual and objective because I didn’t want to moralize about the events that I was describing. I didn’t think that was useful or interesting. I had a strong sense that this situation and situations like these had just accelerated out of control by one thing happening after another and one reaction leading to another counter reaction and so on; I wanted the reader just to have Tom’s experience of getting caught up in these events and afterwards having to make sense of it for themself. I wanted them to have Tom’s experience as strongly as possible and not to be told what to think about it.
SK: Thinking of poetry, your second book, The Quickening Maze, deals with the English poet John Clare’s incarceration in High Beach Asylum. What attracted you to him and this period of his life?
AF: Well, lots of things. That book began in my imagination a long time before I wrote it. I was very interested in John Clare as an undergraduate and I came across this little coincidence in a biography I was reading of Tennyson that John Tarrant Tennyson and John Clare had been in the same place at the same time. Even more intriguing to me: that was a place I knew very well because I’d grown up on the edge of Epping Forest from the age of twelve. I immediately wondered what a meeting between them would have been like. It was a kind of “what if?” counterfactual. Well, not necessarily counterfactual actually; it’s quite likely that they did meet but there’s no record of them meeting. Anyway so that was what immediately interested me. I was particularly interested in Clare of the two because I liked his work very much (as I still do). He’s a very powerful poet and he’s someone who I think everyone who reads him, you know, your heart goes out to him because of his sweetness, his intensity of connection to the natural world, his pain at its destruction, and his bewilderment in life generally. That thought grew for a while. Then at some point I decided I will write this when I’ve learnt enough to be able to do it. And then as I got into researching I found more and more that was interesting and rich. You know, the character of Matthew Allen is a real person; he’s a very interesting guy between his progressive psychiatry, his plans for mechanical wood carving, and his personal history. And so I just found that lots of things were coming together in one place. I had this asylum in Epping Forest with these various people and what was happening at the time historically. John Clare entered the asylum in 1837, which is the year Queen Victoria came to the throne. So there’s all this richness, I mean in terms of Clare’s experience of the changing natural world, the industrial revolution, the changes in psychiatry, and social changes around the new Victorian ideal of respectability. The novel happens on this sort of pivot point between the end of the Regency world and the beginning of the Victorian period. So I just found this very detailed, very concentrated world that was full of these variegated personalities.
SK: Was it difficult to fictionalize this period of Clare’s life?
AF: Well, I had the idea for the best part of ten years before I wrote it and so I had a long time to research it (while, of course, doing other things). I learned a lot about the history of psychiatry and other various things. I had a long time to absorb all of the important information that I needed. But also when you’re dealing with great poets like Tennyson and Clare, you have thousands of pages of their own articulation of their consciousness and experience of the world and it’s as fine and as piercing as you could want it to be because they are such great writers. So in a way it is made easier by that. But it is also more daunting in some sense because you’re trying to inhabit for yourself these extraordinary minds. In the end you have to surrender yourself to that process and think readers will know that I’m only writing the best version of this person I can manage; it can’t be definitive because it is only as rich and as real as I can make it for myself.
SK: What first drew you to poetry?
AF: It was where writing began for me when I was 15 at school. I read an awful lot at that age and read really only poetry. Until I got to university I was not very interested in prose. I mean there were certain prose writers that I would read. I liked Nabokov as a teenager and a couple of others. Nabokov had the kind of density that I liked and the quantity of imagery I guess I found in poetry. I had these tunes in my head, these tunes of poems, that I was writing or that I read. I memorized poems very easily. I don’t really write short form poetry these days but I read it all the time. Poems enter your system and become part of your mental life, you know, in a way that prose can’t quite; it’s to do with the portability and the concentration of poems. They’re always there ready to unfurl in your thoughts.
SK: What is your favourite poem form to write and why?
AF: I write organic forms. I don’t tend to use formal stanza structures. I tend to do it by ear. I mean in a way you could say the form The Broken Word is written in is adapting itself to each kind of moment that it’s describing.
SK: I guess it’s kind of more free verse then?
AF: Yes, but it has to have enough that catches in the ear. That has a rhythmical sense. You know that kind of plants it on the page.
SK: The way you’ve just described your poetry makes me wonder if you’ve ever written to music?
AF: I’ve thought about it. I’d be interested if the right composer and project came along. But yes, it’s not something that has happened yet.
SK: What was your first published poem?
AF: Outside of school magazines, I published things in a couple of literary magazines when I was a student. When I was an undergraduate, the Australian poet Les Murray, who is someone I admire enormously, came to speak at my university and I went to see him and then afterwards kind of threw myself at him. I nervously went and essentially asked if he wouldn’t mind looking at these; he was very generous and did. I showed him, I don’t know, ten poems or something and he published two of those in an Australian magazine called Quadrant for which he was poetry editor. And that was hugely affirmative for me. That was an important stamp of approval.
SK: Oh definitely! I’ve read that you teach creative writing. How do you engage people who are not eager to read poetry?
AF: I teach prose. I mean, I went through my creative writing masters as a poet although I was starting to write more prose really at that time. Generally, in that context people are already eager to read poetry. I’m not a big fan of or willing contributor to poetry’s endless outreach attempts. Poetry is a minority interest and I think that’s fine. It won’t excite everyone. It’s rather like deciding everyone should have access to and a lifelong interest in windsurfing. I do enjoy the teaching; I find it enriching and it’s good to get out of the house as well.
SK: And I guess it gives you some of that real-world experience that enriches your writing, too.
AF: Yeah. I’ve tended to teach adults. I teach a course run by the Guardian newspaper and the University of East Anglia together. It’s an evening class once a week for six months. Basically you do as much as you do in terms of workshop time on an MA, with people who wouldn’t be able to commit to doing an MA; they tend to be older, professional people, quite often women who are just emerging from the busy years of motherhood and finding their own voices again. Working with those people can be very enjoyable. They really appreciate being there and the space for their creativity. It’s nice to be able to be for someone the encouraging and insightful friend that writers hope to have. Or at least, you know, try to be that person.
SK: So to switch gears a little bit, what can you tell me about your newest novel, In the Wolf’s Mouth?
AF: It is set in North Africa and Sicily during the Second World War, during the Allied campaigns to liberate/conquer both those places. It has in particular to do with Sicily and what happened with the Allied invasion and the later British-American overseen transition out of fascism (called AMOOT: the Allied Military Government of the Occupied Territories). Obviously Sicily had been under Mussolini’s fascist rule until then.
In the Wolf’s Mouth is also the complicated story of the mafia’s involvement. It seems Americans used Mafiosi from New York and other places as local intelligence. Mafiosi were released from prisons in Sicily where they had been imprisoned. This period is very murky; the allies are unsure of who might be involved in the mafia and only sort of understand what that means. It’s this slightly cloudy period where the mafia manages to get its grip back on the island in a way that has not loosened since. Fascism was essentially the only movement that ever properly curtailed the mafia in Sicily from its birth a couple hundred years ago. What has a contemporary resonance is this idea of the reconstruction of a country after conflict that’s full of these complicated local politics and affiliations that the occupiers don’t really understand. All these things are quite familiar to us from Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.
SK: What led you to Sicily and the mafia during World War II?
AF: I visited western Sicily on holiday, which is where that mafia culture is strongest, and I was very struck by how different it was to other places in Italy that I’ve been to. I went back a while later when I began researching the book in earnest and met a bunch of people including the historians at Plumber University and members of a landowning family who can remember that period. One of the people I spoke to told me that the Mafiosi were not in your face in quite the way that they used to be but they’re completely in the system. I recently read an article that cited figures from some study that showed the Ndrangheta, one of the southern Italian mafias, had a turnover of something insane like £44 billion in 2014, more than McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank put together.
One of the ways that the mafia’s presence was visible during my first trip to Sicily was that there were these odd bits of infrastructure that aren’t really doing anything. So you’ll see a bit of motorway that isn’t connected to anything or a bridge that’s not doing anything either and a sports stadium that’s half finished and obviously unused. I was told at the time that this is a mafia scam: they create these building projects and claim big subsidies from the European Union and then pocket the money and don’t finish the thing. That was so depressing, this kind of effort that’s completely useless and perverse.
SK: I’d like to finish up with a few questions about what you read. What author or in your case poet inspired you to write?
AF: When I started, I just wrote some poems and then thought, well I better read some poetry. Find out what it’s like. The first name that I had in my head, which I just sort of picked up from general culture, was Keats. I knew that Keats was a poet. So I went and got a copy of Keats’ collected poems and started reading that. And then Yeats also. Not because of that Smith’s song but I don’t know why, he was next. I benefitted from a good school library which had a good poetry section and good anthologies; I just kept reading. So early on Keats and Yeats. Actually, just as I started writing, Samuel Beckett died. Suddenly BBC TV was filled with Samuel Beckett stuff. I got to watch Waiting for Godot and Endgame and all these extraordinary things. I was fascinated and read a lot of Beckett. Once I was up and running I read a lot quickly. Poetry took over my thinking. Really it took over everything.
SK: What are you working on now?
AF: New fiction. And the second draft of a screenplay. We’ll see what happens with that. I mean it’s film so most things don’t happen.
SK: That’s exciting nonetheless.
AF: Sure. It would be nice if it comes off.
SK: What are you currently reading?
AF: Lots of things. I’ve been reading a bit of French stuff – Aragon and Mallarme – because I’m in France and trying to improve my French. But mostly at the moment I’m reading Henry James and Saul Bellow. I’m also reading a DeLillo novel that I’ve not read before called Great Jones Street. But James and Bellow feel like all I need at the moment.
SK: Any Screenplays too, just for fun?
AF: I’ve been watching more films rather than reading them. Actually this house happened to have a copy of some of Bergman’s screenplays so I was looking at those the other day and a while ago I read some Harold Pinter screenplays. I’m feeling my way with this screenplay. But certainly watching lots of films.