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Maddie Mortimer: “My book is just furious it’s not a ballet”

The author of the Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies on typesetting, A Clockwork Orange, and why the mother-daughter bond is “a paradoxical site”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Maddie Mortimer was born in London in 1996. Her debut novel Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is shortlisted for the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize, was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, and won the Desmond Elliott award. Mortimer also writes for film and TV.

In Maps, Lia is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The book explores her changing relationship to her body as her disease develops, and the impact this has on her husband and her 12-year-old daughter, Iris. Lia is the only child of a vicar and his conservative wife, and the narrative moves back in time to her childhood and teenage years, and her first sexual relationship. In Mortimer’s playful book – in which prose sits alongside verse, and the text forms shapes on the page – lies another, troublesome narrative voice. Mortimer calls this narrator “the book’s destructive core, but also its creative essence”.

Ellen Peirson-Hagger: 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?

Maddie Mortimer: If reading fiction already tickles a certain part of the brain that’s asleep for much of the day, reading a novel that’s trying something new might be likened to giving it a vigorous massage, or submerging it in a steaming bath, or sending it off on an Arctic expedition – depending on the book. It promises surprise. Perhaps a little more fun. Each year I find the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist to be a healthy and necessary reminder that writing is just play.

I do also believe in the moral and ethical powers of fiction, so I like the idea that engaging with books that refuse to be categorised and learning to read them on their own terms will make us less judgemental, more enlightened readers of the world around us.

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Your experimental approach is evident from the very beginning of Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies, in the formatting of the text on the page – the bolding, the verse as well as prose, the shapes in which the words sit. Did you always know you wanted to tell this story in such a way, and did this innovative approach to typesetting pose any problems in the publication process?

I knew I wanted the book to feel as alive as possible, and I’ve always been interested in the ways in which text layout can both enhance or, indeed, disrupt narrative, but these stylistic choices couldn’t just be decorative – they had to grow out of the story. I was lucky that in this case, they did.

From very early on, the story seemed to call for this scrapbook logic, for the reader to be particularly active in piecing together its fragments while Lia attempts to make sense of her body, her past. By the end of the whole process, I realised the book was just as much about how we read, write and receive various kinds of texts as it was about a woman at the end of her life.

Agents and publishers were surprisingly receptive to these more playful elements and visual motifs. I’m not sure this would have been the case five years ago, but thanks to the success of writers like Eimear McBride and Max Porter, I think the industry is beginning to accept that “experimental” need not mean “inaccessible”. There’s some way to go, I know, but I am grateful to be writing now. As for the typesetting – the only problems came when transferring the original meticulously laid-out manuscript out of A4 into book size. All the line breaks were in random places. It makes me anxious even thinking about it. 

[See also: Why Diego Garcia is the Goldsmiths Prize winner]

The book includes two important mother-daughter relationships: Anne and Lia, and Lia and Iris. Why did you want to explore this bond, particularly in a book that is so concerned with the human body?

There’s no getting away from the particular instructions written into our biology, and I suppose the book is very preoccupied with the idea that the body has a life of its own; it behaves in ways that can seem totally at odds with what the “thinking mind” might want, or need. Lia seemed to arrive on the page as a woman with a chip on her shoulder about the way she herself was “mothered”, someone who never really considered having children herself, but was now desperate to do as much as she possibly could to give her daughter the opposite experience.

The different ways Anne and Lia perform their motherhood was particularly interesting to me – what came naturally to them, what they did or did not learn along the way, what “good” and “bad” mothering looks like across different generations. I did a lot of anatomical research before I started writing, and I think the thing I was most struck by was just how resilient and accommodating female bodies are – the sheer amount of change, destruction and regeneration they undergo. This is one of the reasons the mother-daughter bond is really a paradoxical site by nature; it carries a whole history of trauma and comfort, jealously, love…

Alongside your novel’s human characters, a mysterious, possibly non-human narrator emerges. What appealed to you about including such a voice, which represents an unknown, disembodied, both interior and exterior perspective?

I see why people have used this term “non-human”, but really I see it as the most human presence in the novel, just stripped of all the trimmings. Once I’d worked out its exact role in the text, the sound of its cackle, the pleasure of writing it only grew stronger and more precise. It’s another case of the pleasure of paradox; it’s the book’s destructive core, but also its creative essence. It invents as it consumes. There’s no end to the fun you can have when a voice functions like this – when it’s both wise and innocent, trickster and villain. I hoped that readers wouldn’t come down too hard on what it is, at least not until the end of the book. It’s a novel all about perspective, and I’ve only ever called it simply the “I” or “the first person”.

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

The book is packed full of cultural references and is a real melting pot of various musical and artistic influences, so this is hard. I listened to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring a lot while writing Maps. It’s a piece of music that “broke the mould and extended the possibilities of the form” so much that objects were thrown at the orchestra when it was first performed. Police were called: people were totally outraged by it. I love its jagged rhythms and dissonant harmonies, it’s devastatingly tender moments that grow unexpectedly aggressive and disorientating. The ballet is also all about sacrifice, a woman dancing herself to death – so there’s that.

Music plays a large part of my writing process, and I think you can occasionally tell, at a sentence level, that the book is just furious it’s not a ballet – that each word secretly wishes it was a note of music. There’s a large dance sequence about halfway through that does a good job of quenching some of that yearn.

One of the novel’s most uncomfortable scenes is set on a train, where a man tries to grope Lia’s breasts, only to find out they have been removed. Elsewhere in the book, there are passionate sex scenes. Could you tell me about the significance of both of these kinds of intimate events – one consensual, one not – in Lia’s life, and women’s lives more generally?

It’s definitely true that, like most women, Lia is made to feel weary of her body from a young age. She spends most of the novel desperately trying to perceive herself as a coherent “whole” by observing herself through the eyes of others, whether that be Matthew, her parents, God, etc (John Berger is particularly good on why women do this). It’s one of the reasons the “first person” narrator shapeshifts as it does.

But this idea of “consent” throughout the book is a murky one. She never thinks of herself as a victim; she’s constantly testing the limits of her body, trying to seek out its edges. She’s drawn to violence and passion and various kinds of affliction because it forces her into the present moment, empties her body of everything but time. Only in these heightened states does she achieve a kind of blissful illusion of wholeness (Simone Weil is good on this). But these events leave their marks, and often give way to intense feelings of guilt, or shame, particularly because they make us aware that death must be, then, the ultimate communion of body and mind. I think Lia knows this, and is deeply troubled by it.

This is a very long way of saying that I was more interested in writing about the many ways women (and men) torture themselves – as a result of internalised patriarchal oppressions, yes, but mostly as a result of just being human beings capable of horrific thoughts and actions. I wanted to see what it took for Lia to forgive such dark impulses as quickly as she forgives the man who gropes her on the train.

Once it is clear that Lia’s cancer is terminal, the book could easily have become depressing. Yet it still feels full of life. Could you tell me about the role of hope in the story and in writing – is it an idea that has become cliché, or is it still useful to think in terms of hope?

I think hope is everything. I also think it’s (unfortunately) impossible to get one’s personality entirely out of the way when writing, and I’m an optimist, so that might account for some of the liveliness. It also helps when one of your narrators delights in all things depressing. It gives you permission to go as dark as you possibly can – you know somebody somewhere on the page will be having a hell of a good time with it.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

To encourage all writers – both new and seasoned – to take risks and be ambitious, to inspire original thought in a cultural landscape that feels increasingly homogeneous, to keep the precious, magical thing that is The Novel alive and shapeshifting into the future, to make sure bestseller lists don’t become the only places people look to for their next read, to make us braver readers and therefore (probably) more interesting people, with good book recommendations to pass on to our friends at the pub. The question is, why don’t we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

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

This is another hard one. I was going to say The Waves or anything by Ann Quin, but I’ll go with A Clockwork Orange for its sheer transgressive energy and surprisingly Joycean musicality. Burgess’s invented hybrid language, “Nadsat”, trips and skips and spits effortlessly along the page while positing some serious philosophical questions. It’s brutal but brilliant, and a good example of the way that form is subject and subject is form. “Gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh…”

Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies” is published by Picador.

Read more about the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here, including interviews with the other shortlisted novelists. The winner of the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize will be announced on 10 November. The winning author will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November.

You can purchase the shortlisted books from here.

[See also: Interview with the Goldsmiths Prize shortlisted novelist, Yara Rodrigues Fowler: “I wanted to disorient the Anglophone reader”]

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