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2 April 2021

Gwendoline Riley: “I’m interested in a person’s helplessness, how people are incorrigible”

The writer on why the word “gaslighting” has lost all meaning, squirrels and her sixth novel, My Phantoms.

By Leo Robson

Gwendoline Riley is thinking aloud. “How did it start? Well, you’ve got to live, haven’t you? And how was I going to live? Write a novel. OK. Age – what was I – 19? 20?”

This was in Manchester, where Riley was studying English. She’d pull books down from her shelf, look at the beginnings. “I thought, ‘Well, they’re just sentences, aren’t they? Well, you can write sentences.’ So I wrote some sentences, and it worked quite well. ‘This is a dive bar in the American style.’ Nice sound. Then a bit of description, I think? Moody. Then: ‘I like working here, mostly.’ ‘Mostly’ – with that qualification, you’ve got a character and you’ve got the interest. I thought, ‘There’s nothing wrong with this, so just carry on and keep doing it.’ And I did.” The whole thing took six months, maybe nine. “Not longer.”

The result was Cold Water (2002), the short, tart book that established Riley as one of the most exciting young British novelists. Over the next decade, there were three more: all slender, all concerned with a young woman from Lancashire, all bearing two-word titles: Sick Notes, Joshua Spassky, Opposed Positions. Then came First Love, which appeared in 2017, and extended her audience beyond a scattering of besotted readers and the juries of age-specific awards. A close-up study of the relationship between a writer and her older boyfriend, First Love commanded wider attention and better sales, making the shortlist for the Women’s Prize, the Gordon Burn Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

The follow-up, My Phantoms, is by some way Riley’s best book, a crisply devastating record of a mother-daughter dynamic that takes the form of a would-be detached portrait of the mother by her daughter. Helen, a retired IT manager, is a champion self-saboteur who trades almost exclusively in passive-aggressive chit-chat. Bridget, the adult daughter looking back at this relationship, seems not to realise that everything she coolly observes also says something about herself – either about the experiences that formed her, or the person she had to model, or simply her own style of thought. Bridget has become an academic, and lives with a psychotherapist. “It’s the life she wanted,” Riley said. “Is it going to hold? I don’t know… This is for the reader to decide.”

We talked about the psychological terrain the novel mainly inhabits. Riley is wary of labels. “Words like ‘narcissist’, ‘toxic’, ‘gaslighting’ – they’ve lost their meaning now.” She prefers to think in more specific terms. “We’re all individuals. I’m interested in a person’s helplessness, how people are incorrigible,” she said. “What on earth can you do?” At one point, Bridget suggests that her mother visits a therapist, but as Riley points out, that was never going to happen. While writing, she was preoccupied by this idea of the unrealised alternative, the rival possibility. “Helen is hearing these confused rumours of another life. She can’t get at it.” She tries to become more outgoing, more outward-looking, more sociable, but defeatism always triumphs. Riley decided that she needed to have the word “Another” in the title. But when her friend, the novelist and editor Luke Brown, proposed “Another Novel,” she quickly moved on to “My…” The question she found herself asking repeatedly was: is it more interesting for a character to “do something unexpected” or simply “never deviate from a mode of communication, whatever happens?” She took the latter route, and it paid off. Reading My Phantoms is a permanently charged experience.

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We were sitting on a bench in Margravine Cemetery, in London’s Barons Court. Riley, who is 42 and has lived in west London since 2012, goes there regularly, to commune with the squirrels. “I have to be wearing my scarf for them to recognise me,” she said, by way of apology. “Sometimes it’s a bit like Zulu. They sort of rush down from behind the bench. You’ve got to get your affection where you can.”

I first heard about Riley almost ten years ago when a friend told me that she’d met a witty writer who wore “cool” shoes. Not long afterwards, I was browsing in a bookshop when a woman with angular features and a raptor glare addressed me by my full name, said, “Your word is law to me”, and then promptly disappeared. (I didn’t catch sight of her shoes.) I quickly deduced that this was Gwendoline Riley. The utterance, I later learned, was a somewhat excessive response to a medium-length book review I’d published in the New Statesman. That sums her up: first the bolshy gesture, then the swift retreat. Riley is entirely herself, but seems uncertain that other people will accept this. A display of seeming confidence is often followed by an attack of nerves. There’s impatience, scorn at times, but also a huge capacity for embarrassment, briskness with others yielding to hardness on herself. She resembles at times a mixture of Mrs Merton and Mary McCarthy, or Joan Didion reconceived by Alan Bennett.

During our interview, Riley offered a running commentary on my technique. “Didn’t you write anything down?” she asked, after a very brief lull. Later, during a fruitless detour on Sally Rooney, I noted that Riley’s earlier novels were also unvarnished portraits of relationships between young people. She cut me off. “Have you read these books?” But she was also tentative and apologetic. “This isn’t going to come off great on your tape!” she said at one point. “I’m really very inarticulate on this subject. Sarah Palin could give me a run for my money.”

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Riley told me that she is “slightly annoyed I’ve only written these thin books. You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but my mind is really teeming with ideas and impressions and observations and thought. Honest, guv, it is.” I was keen to understand how she ended up that way – how she found herself in that Manchester room, barely an adult but with a head full of phrases, a body of perceptions on which to draw. “I think it just has to be total immersion in literature from a young age, doesn’t it?” I suggested it was more likely that being surrounded by bullshit accelerates perception. She nodded vigorously, for perhaps the only time. Though difficult parents are a recurring feature in her work, we avoided discussing the novel’s autobiographical origins. She said, “If I think of my childhood, a lot of it seems to be – if I’m not in my bedroom, I’m at the kitchen doorway, the living room doorway, just standing.” 

Riley has never made a living – or much of one – from her novels. But writing has, as she hoped, enabled her to live, in a familiar tangential way. She used to teach creative writing at Keele University, and for the past two years she has had a fellowship with the Royal Literary Fund, helping students at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, with their essays. And she has been writing fiction constantly since those days in her Manchester flat. “Every day some, and then when it gets momentum, every day a hell of a lot. It’s what I like to do. I find it very absorbing.” Even before First Love came out, she had a document called “Six” or “Novel Six” containing “bits left over – good lines, funny scenes, ‘might use that’, nice words”. Reflecting on this habit caused her briefly to “wonder” – perhaps her favourite verb in conversation – if the whole thing has been a single project. She decided not. But the last two books constitute a masterly mini-oeuvre. They share a publisher, Granta (her earlier novels were published by Jonathan Cape). They’re set in London rather than the north. They’re constructed along classical lines (three acts, then five). They’re written in the first person. And they make Riley’s earlier novels look like apprentice work. (Her word for those books was “callow”.)

These days, Riley can’t just write an opening sentence, and then carry on. The writing takes longer than it used to – four years, in this case. (She missed her deadline.) She explained that she’s trying to get “deeper into everything”, and it can be “very tough”. For a while, she had two beginnings. She wasn’t quite sure what the novel was going to be about. “It just felt so out of joint until really late on,” she told me. “I’d handed it in and I was still making changes, and it wasn’t until after a few of them that I thought, ‘It’s clicked into place now. This is meaningful.’”

“My Phantoms” is published by Granta