Never Was (Cipher Press) is the second novel by H Gareth Gavin. The author was born in Birmingham, but now lives in Manchester, where he works at Manchester University’s Centre for New Writing and teaches a course on trans theory. Never Was has been nominated for the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize.
In the novel, Daniel emerges from an afterparty that refuses to dwindle, and finds Fin sat on the clifftops. Daniel seems to know Fin, and thinks Fin is famous or something – though things have blurred since that last line of ketamine. All that seems certain is that Daniel must tell Fin a story. In hazy and semi-lucid recollections, Daniel describes a childhood of McDonalds and plural George Michaels, a salt-miner father and an unwelcome arrival to their lopsided house. Their conversation takes place in the Never Was – a land formed of disappointments and dreams that never came to be – and as Daniel comes to understand why they are there, the novel’s form disintegrates, and their story retreats to margins and footnotes. In this fracturing fantasy party land, a past life in a post-industrial Northern town and the spaces between, truth seems to collapse – and Gavin asks what can emerge from the rubble.
Ellys Woodhouse: 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?
H Gareth Gavin: In its early, emergent form, the novel was a collision of modes and genres. Somewhere along the way, the urge to divide and categorise took hold, which is a story that interestingly parallels that of gender and sexuality in modernity. The Goldsmiths Prize is a reminder of the form’s mutability. I’m not sure, though, that there is necessarily a strict opposition between innovation and convention; innovation is always an interpretation of available conventions, which is, I think, also the pleasure of it. But maybe I say this because, at the same time as I am fascinated by the experimental, I’m often deeply attached to what gets designated “mainstream”. I tend to be drawn towards the queerness of the mainstream, rather than queerness that is oppositional to it. Hence the significance of George Michael in Never Was.
Much of the novel is told through dialogue: what is said and unsaid, what we project onto others. How do you consider voice in your fiction?
At some point, I became obsessed with the idea of kleos, which is the Greek word for fame, but which also means something like how you are heard of. Kleos is both the song and the life that is heard of by way of it, both the medium and what the medium communicates. Most of the characters in Never Was feel some kind of dissonance between how they are heard of and how they think of themselves, and among other things, “Never Was” is a name for that dissonance, or, let’s say, dysphoria.
In a way, dysphoria is an experience of being wrongly narrated, though the book is also resistant to the idea of correct narration. The back and forth between Fin and Daniel that frames Daniel’s story in the second part of the novel is sometimes gentle, sometimes argumentative; they sulk, bicker and find each other annoying, but that’s how Daniel edges closer to a new level of understanding.
While Daniel’s story is framed within their conversation with Fin, the novel is divided further into sections, each with a visually distinctive format. The opening, “A New Beginning”, is composed of single-page vignettes, while “An Old Story” has the familiarity of a play, with the speaker indicated in the margin. How did you come to this structure?
The two brief paragraphs per page of the first part [of the novel] emerged in response to the problem of how to give form to a space that is amorphous and indeterminate. Never Was begins in a landfill for lost dreams and things that never came to be, a precarious place that changes depending on whose disappointments are shaping it. As a world, it’s barely sustainable – there are baby pterosaurs and a wrecked cruise ship – and the lessened text on the page helps represent that visually. I was also influenced by a book by the Icelandic writer [and former Goldsmiths Prize judge] Sjón, called The Blue Fox, which uses a similar technique to bring the reader into an otherworldly encounter.
The visual division of the text that continues for the rest of Never Was is like a silent reiteration of the gender binary, which in my mind is also associated with the Ha Ha in the garden of Fin’s mansion. A Ha Ha is a boundary that transforms the landscape it divides into a continuum, but it can still trip you up, and it still takes a great effort to get across.
This year, the Goldsmiths shortlist is dominated by authors from and writing about the north of England. Yet in Never Was, the geographical and temporal settings of Daniel’s childhood in “the North” are kept vague. Instead, the reader is offered descriptions of the nameless salt-mining town that Daniel grew up in. What drew you to this particular – or not-so-particular – setting?
The town in Never Was is a composite. Birmingham was very much the main character of my first novel, and in Never Was I was more concerned with communicating a feeling of groundlessness than in capturing concrete locations. But that said, some aspects are similar to my dad’s hometown, Kirkby, an “overspill town” built to re-house the communities of the Scotland Road area in inner-city Liverpool. Kirkby was supposed to be a New Town-style utopia but became and remains one of the most deprived areas in the UK – though that term, deprived, irritates me. My nana’s pebble-dashed council house by the side of the wide road is basically the house in Never Was, but Never Was is not a novel about Kirkby. The lift factory opposite got swapped for a salt mine when I came across images of subsidence caused by salt extraction around towns like Northwich. I was drawn to how those landscapes spoke to the relation between the “man-made” and the “natural”, which is a relation likewise set in motion by transness.
Little in Never Was has a stable reference – the North is also the North of Fantasia in the film The NeverEnding Story (1984), a world that is being destroyed by the Nothing.
In lots of ways, the book is otherworldly. Yet you also write with specificity, including cultural touchstones such as McDonald’s, Australian soap operas, newspaper clippings from the Sun. How do you approach writing with such nebulous specificity?
Like I was growing up, Daniel is without a language for transness – but I was interested in showing how questions of self and embodiment that get attached to transness are actually everywhere.
A reviewer [of the novel] on Goodreads posted a video of Craig McLachlan protesting about being left out of the recent Neighbours reunion by performing both as himself and as his old Neighbours character, Henry Ramsay. Subtracted from the surrounding show, the scenery, the other characters, his inhabitation of Henry comes across as strange, bizarre, pantomime-like, but why? I did a lot of thinking as a small kid via soap operas and the kinds of stories tabloids zone in on. Maybe as [“low cultural”] references they stand out in contrast to bourgeois modes of citation, which tend to go more unmarked. Kath McKay, who comes from Kirkby actually, has written about the way taste organises ascriptions of class.
But “nebulous specificity” also gets at how the world of Daniel’s childhood never crystallises into an actual, completely realised place. Instead, the town is itself acted upon by the vantage point from which Daniel tells their narrative, a cliffside that also signifies a cliff-hanger in Daniel’s life. When Daniel enters Never Was, they know themselves as Daniel, but everybody else still calls them Daniela. Like many trans people, they’re in a tussle with their history, the way it doesn’t straightforwardly lead to who they are becoming – but also does.
The novel navigates difficult subjects – grief, addiction, loss, class – yet in the limbo of lost dreams that is the Never Was, there are glimmers of its possibility as a place of change. Is hope important to the novel?
I’d say I’m more interested in stubbornness than in hope. At its worst, I think the imperative to be hopeful is a way of pressuring people into agreeing to their situation. There’s often a concealed aggression in it, anyway. Hope has to do with expectation: it’s easier to be hopeful when the resources and infrastructures you need to remake your life are more readily available. For years I lived with a wild and hopeless depression; often it felt like I was expected to get better in the form of a woman, when what I really needed to do was transition. More so than hope, that required stubbornness.
But alongside transness, I’m interested more broadly in how a life can be remade, given the opportunity. My mum worked as a shop assistant in Next for most of my childhood, then did an art course, then when she was 53 went to university. This change was partly made possible by my dad going from being the host of a football phone-in show on local radio to doing touch-line interviews with players on TV. But it’s also because my mum is a very stubborn woman.
Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you when writing this book.
“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” – the duet version with George Michael and Elton John. I love duets: the way they reveal a song’s different sides simultaneously. Never Was is meant to be a kind of duet between Fin and Daniel.
Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?
A shortlist of the kind generated by the Goldsmiths Prize can bring books and authors together in a way that reveals affinities that might not otherwise be apparent – like the way in which the north figures in this year’s selection. That can lead to fresh conversations. It also creates a prominent space for work put out by small presses like Cipher Press, which take risks that other publishers don’t, and without the same resources.
What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?
Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (1970). A short, taut experiment in ruthlessness with the best tagline ever: “a metaphysical shocker”.
Read more about the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here. The winner of the prize will be announced on 8 November.