Anakana Schofield: “I’m glad to be confused by literature”

The Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novelist on writing about older women, “dreary, middlebrow” literature and why she volunteers for Dying with Dignity.

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Anakana Schofield was born in 1971 to an English father and an Irish mother. Raised just outside London, she moved to Dublin in her early 20s, and relocated to Canada in 1999, where she has lived ever since. Her first novel, Malarky, was published in 2012 – a darkly comic “exploration of grief and sexuality” narrated by Phil, or Our Woman, a middle-aged farmer’s wife from Mayo. Her second novel Martin John was shortlisted for the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize. She is shortlisted again for her third novel, Bina: A Novel in Warnings. Angry, paranoid and confused 74-year-old Bina (“Bye-na not Bee-na”) scrawls the narrative on scraps of paper and receipts, as the reader gradually comes to understand she stands accused of a serious crime.

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?

An innovative approach is interested in what the novel might become, rather than what we already know it to be or what it can be. In no other art form would we be content to only revisit that which has worked. If this were the case, we’d still be looking at paintings of bowls of fruit and sheep beside rivers. Instead we are willing to contemplate a sheep with an orange for a head standing on the motorway. I’m not sure we even need to label it as an “innovative approach”, we just need to be made aware, as readers, of a deep interest in literary form and language, beyond stacking up heapy paragraphs that comprise descriptions of the slant of sunlight and outfits people are wearing and trying to get a boyfriend. There’s nothing wrong with any of these elements, but we live in a time of pure madness. There’s nothing steady about it. That isn't to suggest that novels be only loud and raucous and a chorus of trumpets. Far from it, I find the resistance to quiet novels just as flawed as the resistance to the non-linear and traditional arc. 

The protagonist of Bina is a 74-year-old Irish woman who was also a minor character in Malarky. What drew you to returning to this particular character at greater length and in greater depth?

One line of hers in Malarky when she visits her friend Phil in hospital, and Bina tells her “Don’t let them put anything in your mouth and don't let them put anything up the other end either”. I like how she uses the language of warning and lets Phil know she is watching what they are doing to her friend. They are both older women. Bina is very fun and bold. I also liked that she doesn’t give a flying fuck what you think of her and wants to be left in peace. I look forward to emulating this at age 74 – or hopefully much sooner, since I might not last that long.

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

What a beautiful question! I have been so thirsty to talk about this! The paintings of Francis Bacon were vital. I would stare at them for hours and tell myself I wanted to trap something of the excruciating isolation and agony in them. There was also a series of soundscapes by the fiddler Caoimhín Ó'Raghallaigh called Music for an Elliptical Orbit. They are marvellous and there are notes in them that again I wanted to find language to replicate or a feeling of deep sadness that Bina endures daily with the loss of her beloved friend. Like tears that can never be sufficiently cried out: a sadness beyond erasure, which dies only when the person themselves dies and is then transferred to someone else, who loses them.

It’s Bina’s voice that drives the novel forwards. She is at turns funny, angry, confused, paranoid, bored, scared, strident – the kind of woman who says, when she appears in the newspapers, “I was glad they used that old photo of me taking a hammer to the plane that time during the protest at Shannon Airport because I had a hat on.” How important is the question of voice in your work and how did you arrive at a voice like Bina’s?

This is a question that I don't quite fathom, although people bring up voice often with me. I don't think you can have any novel if there's no voice. Even if you are writing a novel about a can of beans, a voice must bring you to and through that can of beans. I might contend that rather than voice, what I endeavour to capture or create is the ticking of her brain and to insist that an old woman's brain is a very exciting and intriguing place to be. The focus of spending 300 pages in the head and kidneys of one woman was the most important thing for this novel, because we don't often/always do that in fiction – though this is changing. I wanted to have a Beowulfian, epic quality to this ordinary woman, fighting her private battles in her kitchen, misunderstood by her washing line and in bed with her hot water bottle and custard cream biscuits.

Bina is suffering memory loss, as most of us over 45 do, so her hesitation and confusion was deliberate and it had to be. I wasn't trying to write her as some dithery auld one. I was trying to legitimately create and capture the confusing splintering of memory loss. I think anyone under 40 won’t know it yet, but it’s coming and scary.

Bina has a fragmented form – Bina is writing on scraps of paper, receipts. Her mind wanders, so sometimes there is a stream of consciousness element to the writing. How did you arrive at this form?

I began with the form and language of the warning. I thought hard about the shape of it. I walked around in circles banging my sad head against my stumpy arms in despair wondering how to fathom it – as I am presently doing with the current novel I am writing, which fails to just pop up out of the toaster ready-made! The cheek of these novels, honestly. My question is always how can I find the language to make this work? In this case, I also needed a materiality for Bina – how could she and would she write to us? I don't want to write novels about writers, so I asked myself: what would a woman of her vintage use? There’s a long, probably undocumented or even realised, social history of note taking and letter writing to and from rural Ireland. I've seen it in the ephemera of my female ancestors. I lived it as a child watching letters come to England from Ireland several times a week and replies being sent back. I suspect families have biscuit tins full of scraps, cards and letters. Also, my work is always concerned with class, so if you are poor you might tend to keep things or reuse things. You might as Bina suggests “log your reminders”. The receipt for buying chickens or your first bathroom sink could be sitting in an old teapot.

There are footnotes that interrupt, go on tangents or add context to what Bina is saying. Can you tell me about those?

The footnote is a form I've been playing with since I began this triptych of novels. It was mostly a device of self-provocation or devilment. I put a single footnote in Malarky which read “*See Martin John – a footnote novel”. Obviously, I had no idea I would write such a novel. Martin John is a single footnote of a novel to Malarky. Then, for Bina, I took a hammer to the notion of the footnote and it is shot through with them, including referring back to Malarky. So there's a progression across the novels of the deployment of that device. For Bina, the footnote serves as the collection tank for brain leakage. The afterthought, or “I can't revisit the thought I expressed before so I need to make a new one, or expand that one…”, or “I forgot to tell you…”. Again, I am fascinated by the human brain and how it navigates the world in a non-linear way. The tangent is such a common conversational trait. Humans are not nearly as tidy in their thinking and rumbles as the novel can sometimes insist. We are contradictory and lost.

Bina is a novel that is interested in assisted dying – Goldsmiths judge Frances Wilson called it “a black comedy about euthanasia”. What drew you to the question of the right to die?

I have lost beloved friends to suicide and it has broken me and forced me to examine how I failed them. I concluded having intelligent conversations about dying would be a good starting point. After I wrote the novel, I started to volunteer here for Dying with Dignity, helping people apply for medical assistance in dying. It is the most profound and useful thing I've ever done. I honestly have very few talents, but I think if I come into a room to help you fill up a form I can be very warm and helpful. I am a very loyal friend and have been blessed to feel truly loved by my friends. Sometimes at the end of life people have nobody. There is a hidden epidemic of loneliness. It's very important that people have autonomy in their end-of-life choice.

There are lots of questions in this novel about the role of friendship and caring for others – what we might owe one another in terms of care and support. Do you think we struggle to accept the suffering of others? Do we have a moral duty to help relieve it when we see it?

I think we have a strange contradiction where we insist on keeping people alive who have lived long and fulfilling lives and now are suffering intolerably and have no quality of life, while we do absolutely nothing to help the substance users and addicts, who do not want to be dead and are being killed daily by a poisoned and contaminated drug supply. I would find it morally a better fit to help those people who don't want to die get access to a safe supply, rather than stand over Auntie Margo, age 93, shouting: “You will stay alive until the Lord hails you!”

There’s a line in the book that reads: “Bina’s not for difficult books. Life is full of difficulty so if she were ever to lie down and take up a book, it couldn’t be a difficult one. I’d never read that rubbish, she’d say of this book.” How do you feel about the concept of “difficult” literature?

I have stronger feelings about middlebrow literature, which publishers rush to embrace. I find it dreary and somnambulant. Life's difficult! Literature should be difficult. Being a human is very confusing, I'm glad to be confused by literature. Obviously no one agrees with me, except one man in Wales on Twitter.

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

Geography is overrated. We see this with the appalling treatment of people fleeing violence and poverty who we prevent from finding a life where they don't fear death hourly for their children. Therefore, I would nominate Thalia Field’s Experimental Animals. Field’s combination of science and archival material and literary reckoning is marvellous, and her work is 40 years ahead of literature.

If you really insist on passport control: I loved Eimear McBride's novel Strange Hotel. I don’t think I’ve read a book that was so utterly in the mind and physical body of a woman on her own terms, which is partly why some of the responses to that book were completely numpty and short-sighted. Even the text creates and becomes its own spinal vertebrae.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Principally, because each year I discover great books from this shortlist. But also because it's a prize that's chiefly interested in literature on literary terms with literary impulses – with art-making.

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize will be announced in an online ceremony on 11 November and will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 21 November. Tickets are available here.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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