Anakana Schofield: “If I could follow a recipe I might write less demented novels”

The Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted author of Martin John on writing perverts, literary weather forecasting and keeping prizes inventive.

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Martin John is tough to read – and I’m not just talking about its form. True, it is densely circuitous, dizzyingly repetitive, full of swift inversions and niggling obsessions. But that much you know from the moment you open it and see the layout of its pages, where there are lists of thoughts, straight from the distorted mind of its titular character, rather than prose narrative in any usual sense. Striking, but not difficult. No: what makes this novel difficult is its familiarity. At one point, Martin John tells us: “Doesn’t matter who you are, love. You’re incidental. You need only be on the Tube when Martin John’s on the Tube, if he decides it’s the day to cadge a rub.” Yet sometimes the victims of his ambigious crimes fight back, in small ways. They refuse to give him the satisfaction of their terror; they put up just enough resistance to give them something to hang on to. I can’t imagine there is a woman alive who could not tell you about Martin John (but, of course, most women don’t tell).

It is for this reason, more than its form, that Martin John is a bold novel. I caught up with its Irish-Canadian author, Anakana Schofield, to ask her about the Goldsmiths Prize, innovative fiction, and what it was like to send her book off into the world.

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What does the Goldsmiths Prize mean to the literary landscape?

Well if it genuinely continues to reward innovation then it’s the missing element in its the eco-system. Ease tends to be rewarded, especially by market forces which are sadly increasingly shaping our reading. If you write uneasy work or you challenge form then expect to have to dig or travel a few motorways for your single digit readers! 

What does “innovative” or “experimental” writing allow you to do that more conventional form might not? How self-conscious is your use of form – do you pick it, or does it feel like you don’t have much choice?

I think it all comes down to curiosity. How curious are you? Are you a curious reader, are you a curious writer? Novels become what they need to become is my feeling. Experimental leanings or interrogations require perhaps more willingness to fail, since you're trying “other” recipes. They may add up. They may not. In my case I can’t cook, so I suspect I have no other choice. Perhaps if I could follow a recipe, I might write less demented novels. But life is demented and dementing so I can't imagine writing work that doesn't speak to that. 

I give a great deal of headache-ing and neurosis to how. How can I get underneath this? How might the form be or become the content? Form is my starting point. It’s the front door. Then it's years of daylight depriven, roly-poly barrels of anxiety.  

Books are very hard to write and perhaps it’s something akin to a protracted affliction to undertake them whatever form they may take. 

Your book is an uncomfortable read (to say the least). Did you have any trepidation about writing it? Was it taxing to go spend time in Martin John’s mind?

My novel should be an uncomfortable read or in this case it would be a failed novel. I'm often asked why I wrote it but I'm inclined to wonder how could I not have written it?

Sexual assault, and its lasting impact on the victims’ lives it viciously ruins, and the deep psycho-sexual problems all our societies are riddled, with along with our insatiable appetite to do harm, are the conversations we need to have and should have been having since eternity. As a writer how could I not respond?

It feels like the defining conversation for and among women of my generation anyway. I had great trepidation while writing it and before it was published. Now I just have trepidation every time I read of another reader recoiling from it before they’ve opened it. But I console myself with the matter that the response reflects the content. Thus the form is the content, which is my ambition for novels. And the engagement with Martin John has been extraordinary, intelligent and insightful. Sometimes courage is rewarded. We tend to underestimate readers.

Why did you make your character an ex-pat?

The Irish in England are a surprisingly ignored sociological group in English language literature. I also made an inversion on the fallen woman who was historically shipped out and hidden, and instead made her a man. 

Which past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize?

Now it’s my turn to recoil! I recoil at the idea it has to be an Irish or British novel, since it's in the imaginative realm... But it doesn’t need to be a retrospective prize. I just read Thalia Field's novel Experimental Animals – just published  – so it can have the imaginary prize, because it can’t be entered for the actual prize since she’s American. 

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I would be a literary weather forecaster. My forecasts would be based on notions, since I'm quite thick at science. I think I will very shortly though, at this rate, be looking for a job involving, yet again, a cleaning cart. The devaluing of labour is a big concern of mine and unfortunately it’s the working poor who get the most shafted in this regard.

I really wish we gave as much attention to the labour which keeps dysfunctional cities functioning. The woman who measures you for a bra or the person who cleans the hospital and is the most powerful preventative force between you and MRSA.

Sorry what was the question again? See, this is why I couldn't weather forecast – I'm too diffuse. 

“Martin John” is published by And Other Stories.

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, announced on 9 November, will appear in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 26 November.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.