Interview: Peter Hobbs
The author of The Short Day Dying, who unexpectedly became a writer during a long illness,
Peter Hobbs is a writer who understands how life can suddenly swerve off course. Fresh out of Oxford - a politics graduate with no literary ambitions - he was recruited by the Foreign Office and sent to Pakistan as a junior diplomat. But shortly after arriving he was taken seriously ill - a freak affliction he describes as "some kind of dysentery" complicated by a reaction to the anti-malarial drugs he'd been on.
For the next two years he was confined to his bed, and five years later he was still convalescing. His career, health and social life in freefall, he went through what he refers to as "a bleak period". To make it more bearable, he began writing stories.
Now a critically acclaimed novelist in his mid-thirties, he’s living life as he never intended. "I’ve been very fortunate, being able to find another thing I can do," he says, apparently now reconciled to the premature termination of his diplomatic career.
But his prolonged illness has, unsurprisingly, had an indelible mark on his writing which seems to have a unifying theme of suffering.
The narrator of The Short Day Dying (Hobbs’s Whitbread-shortlisted debut) is Charles Wenmoth, a Methodist lay preacher in 19th century Cornwall, who’s plagued by loneliness, grief, the uncertainties of faith and the inexorable passing of time.
It’s an echoing, hypnotic, brutally unsentimental narrative written, without commas, in language of stark elemental beauty.
Hobbs sidesteps praise for this book by talking about its ambivalent reception: "A couple of reviewers criticized the lack of irony, saying it needed an extra level of perspective, a slight change of genre - and at that point I felt I’d done something right; that if people thought a novel had to be written ironically, then it was very good to go against them. The idea that irony is necessary makes no sense to me at all."
But, he says, looking so directly at Wenmoth’s unhappiness did make the writing process fairly debilitating. "It’s a very claustrophobic mental world Wenmoth inhabits. The only way of writing the novel was to have him looking in a very straightforward, almost obsessional way at these questions about personal freedom and the passing of time. It took me three years to write, and I don’t think there was a single day when I felt confident about what I was doing. I was just very lucky that the novel was partly about doubt, so all my worries about the artistic endeavor could actually feed into it."
Hobbs tells me that one of his goals was "to show faith as seen from the inside" - reflecting, perhaps, the several generations of his family that have included preachers. He says he was determined not to write a novel about loss of faith.
But surely Wenmoth’s desire to ‘keep things from eternity’ is recognizably agnostic. Hobbs takes my interpretation seriously, but gently dissents: "I think it’s entirely within human nature to have contradictory fears and beliefs - and I think it’s very natural to fear mortality, whatever else you believe."
Hobbs becomes uncharacteristically vague when quizzed about his own religious beliefs. "I find it very difficult to talk about," he falters. And then, less hesitantly: "I certainly don’t think religion’s at all foolish."
We begin talking about his short story collection, I Could Ride All Day In My Cool Blue Train - out this month in a new paperback edition. The title comes from a story called Deep Blue Sea, which was anthologised in New Writing 13, and was the first thing I ever read by Hobbs.
A labyrinthine, self-reflexive story, its ailing narrator inhabits a futuristic, flooded world - ‘a town full of rain, a liquid city’ - in which he survives as a professional storyteller. It is, Hobbs says, ‘a very autobiographical story’, with its themes of physical degeneration and storytelling-as-redemption.
It also feels as though he is teasing his audience for wanting a happy ending.
"I think you need to be very cautious about sentimentality," he says. "It can be deeply manipulated… Storytellers need to be honest about human motivation and the consequences of events. It’s far too easy to lie, to offer false hope."
And perhaps that is what sets Hobbs apart. He writes the kind of fiction which reminds us that suffering cannot always be alleviated - sometimes it must be endured and ultimately can make us stronger.