Amy Arnold: “Writing something so dangerous genuinely scared me”

Amy Arnold on her Goldsmiths-shortlisted novel Slip of a Fish, science and fiction, and testing the limits of her readers’ empathy.

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Amy Arnold’s debut novel, Slip of a Fish, won the inaugural Northern Book Prize in 2018, and was published that year by the Sheffield-based indie publisher And Other Stories.

The book is told from the point of view of Ash, a wife and mother haunted by events from her past, who during the course of the novel commits a shocking act. Arnold’s writing plunges us into Ash’s turbulent mind, an intense experience that finds space for humour and beauty, but is most of all a disorientating, disturbing, and sometimes compellingly strange experience.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Art and prizes. It’s difficult, isn’t it? But forget about winners and losers for now. Here’s a prize which encourages publishers to publish, writers to write and readers to read something different, something off the beaten track. The novel moves on.

Slip of a Fish was published as a result of winning the Northern Book Award. When did you write it, and had you made previous attempts to publish it?

I started writing Slip of a Fish while I should have been working on a piece of research for a neuropsychology journal. I loved those clandestine writing sessions: fiction, not science. Tiny acts of rebellion. I wasn’t ever intending to publish it. Retrospectively, I realise this allowed me to write with absolute freedom, a freedom that’s difficult to reclaim once a piece of your work is out in the world. My partner convinced me to enter the Northern Book Prize. I didn’t send it anywhere else. I got lucky. Really lucky.

Your recreation of Ash’s psychological state involves the past, the present and the imaginary blending in a powerful and disorienting way. Do you think of it as being a particularly challenging book for readers?

It was never intended to be challenging. Being challenging for the sake of it strikes me as pointless. The truth is that I never really imagined anyone would read it so I just did my best to find the form that allowed the story to be told. However, I did make a conscious decision not to answer questions, tie up loose ends, or explain. This probably does make for a challenging read.

The novel contains some very disturbing subject matter. How difficult was it to engage with?

Almost too difficult. Writing something so dangerous genuinely scared me, but I wanted to find out if it was possible to ask readers to feel empathy for a character who does something society considers abhorrent.

How did your knowledge of neuropsychology feed into the writing of the novel?

I don’t think it did. I’ve never done any research into mental illness. One of the reasons I started work on the book was to escape from having to think like a scientist. Writers don’t have to answer the questions they ask. That’s a definite plus!

Are there any writers you particularly admire for their portrayal of extreme psychological states?

Yes. Jon Fosse’s Melancholy portrays the breakdown of leading Norwegian painter, Lars Hertervig. It’s a strange and mesmerising blend of biography and fiction. Completely compelling. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, too. So good

One of the questions your novel poses is what the limits of empathy might be. Do you think our society is characterised by a lack of empathy, either to those who commit crimes or those who, for example, have different political beliefs?

Yes, and I’m so glad you asked. We find ourselves in a polarised society. Leave or Remain, left or right, let them in or keep them out. The harder we fall on either side, the more difficult it becomes to understand or empathise with the “other”. I love the idea that literature can save us from our biases and distrust. We can look inside other lives, maybe just one other life. That might be all it takes to soften us a little.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

Jon Fosse again, this time his Aliss at the Fire. There are references to it throughout Slip of a Fish. Reading Fosse’s writing is like listening to music. You can’t keep hold of it. It’s such a relief to know there are books out there that will sweep us off our feet. I want to mention an Anne Sexton poem, too, “The Balance Wheel”I don’t know why, but I kept coming back to it. It’s the last line, I think. “I see them bend the air, slipping away, for what birds seek”.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

I think we have to be careful not to innovate for innovation’s sake. Still, in order to be heard, writers need to find new ways to speak. We’re all numb from information overload, and more of the same is, well, more of the same. We need fiction that wakes us up, that makes us want to rip out our modems and hurl our phones across the room. We need this more than ever.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

That’s difficult. So many contenders. Off the top of my head, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and Berg by Ann Quin. But those are just two I’ve read in the last few months.

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