Amy Arnold was first shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2019, for her debut novel, Slip of a Fish: a daring psychological portrait of a vulnerable woman that asks the reader how far they are willing to extend their empathy. She returns to the shortlist this year, with Lori & Joe, a formally innovative exploration of grief, loneliness and inertia. It takes the reader inside Lori’s mind on the day when she wakes up to find her husband dead. “Joseph’s dead, she thinks.” She decides to walk the fell outside her window. “Get going then, she thinks, and she starts on down the bridleway, one foot in front of the other, and she thinks, simple, yes, with feet it’s almost always simple.” As she does, she reflects on their 25-year relationship and her fixation with the family who once lived next door.
Anna Leszkiewicz: In this novel – like your last book, A Slip of a Fish – the reader is carried along by the rush of thoughts of a single character. (The phrase “stream of consciousness” feels a little too gentle for the propulsive momentum of these swirling, circular internal monologues.) What draws you to this way of writing?
Amy Arnold: I think what I’m actually drawn to is the age-old problem of how to reflect consciousness in the most authentic way possible. Can another person’s experience really be translated into language? How far into experiencing consciousness might this language take the reader? More simply – what does it feel like to be this person, to be Lori? These swirling, circular internal monologues can feel quite intense. We’re unaccustomed, I think, to being pushed up against the inner life of another person.
In Lori & Joe, Lori wakes to find her husband dead, and sets out to walk up the fell outside her house in Cumbria, where you also live. Lori imagines it as a landscape that “absorbs violence after violence”. Tell me about the role of the landscape in this novel.
The strange thing about open, spare landscapes like the one in Lori & Joe is that they give the illusion of movement. (Imagine a giant, slow-moving kaleidoscope shifting through infinite representations of the world in front of you.) Of course, nothing ever moves. The feeling is an effect, brought about by changes in the environment – in light, or rain, or clouds. As Lori herself says, “the valley and the fell just sit there”. Is the landscape a metaphor for Lori’s own great stuckness, the violence she’s had to absorb? I’m not too sure. What feels like movement, a walk over the fell, only serves to bring her back to where she started from.
Walking is something Lori does in the novel almost instinctively. For you, is there a relationship between walking and writing?
Stuff happens when you walk. The movement of the body seems to free the mind – brings on a word, another word. Brings you on a sentence, or two. These moments feel like happy accidents. Somehow it feels wrong to prepare for them. I suspect that’s why I only ever take the dog with me when I walk, never a notebook or a phone.
You open with the epigraph from Etel Adnan: “To be in the fog is to be in a state of suspension. What’s true is then not true; the mind’s liberation.” Tell me about the role of fog in the novel.
I’ve walked Lori’s walk in every weather condition: sun, rain, high wind, and (not surprisingly) fog. In fog, you see almost nothing outside of yourself. It forces the gaze inward. Oh, and fog – because sometimes it’s difficult to find a language to reach the things we want to write about.
Lori & Joe is about a relationship of over twenty-five years, but its “action” takes place over just one day. Why did you want to focus the novel over that short period of time?
Joe is dead. Lori goes for a walk on the fell. Time is suspended, or rather, Lori exists outside it – in a kind of “no time” that, strangely, keeps her connected to Joe. Time here is like the sky that day, “white from end to end”. She can slip in and out of decades, shuffle sideways and sideways again. In the end, even timelessness feels time at its edges. The floor needs sweeping, the cat needs feeding. She should probably get on home.
I used the word “action” in the last question, but Lori spends much of the novel reflecting on a twenty-five-year period characterised, in many ways, by inaction. Why did you want to explore that here?
It doesn’t seem so unusual to want to write about being stuck. In some ways, we all are, we just don’t like to draw attention to it. Instead, there’s a tendency for us to narrate our lives as movement, as action, as events that unstick us and set us free. I have a suspicion that we are most alive when we are inert. I mean, if you don’t go anywhere then you must be, stubbornly, there.
Although we are taken inside Lori’s mind, there are important revelations – you might even call them “plot twists” – held back from us until the end of the novel. How important to you is the question of suspense?
Real life is full of suspense. We keep things from people, we keep things from ourselves. At some point, usually later than we’d like, we find ourselves knowing something without ever having articulated it to ourselves.
Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.
Fratres, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt – a mesmerising, tear-inducing set of variations on a six-bar theme. It’s a piece written without fixed instrumentation, but I always hear the version for violin and piano in my head whenever I imagine Lori walking over the fell. Pärt observes that “the instant and eternity are struggling within us”. I like that.
Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?
Novels are for readers, and readers need to know that they belong to a culture, to a society that cares about literature as art, as innovation. It matters.