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5 November 2021

Keith Ridgway: “There is an instinct in people for solidarity, connection and laughter”

The Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted author on Muriel Spark, south London and his fifth novel A Shock.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Keith Ridgway was born in Dublin and lives in London. His books include The Long Falling and Hawthorn & Child. A Shock, shortlisted for the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize, is his fifth novel and first in eight years. Over nine distinct but overlapping chapters, Ridgway depicts the lives, relationships and inner worlds of several different characters living in south London with sharp wit and an eye for absurd detail. Judge Kamila Shamsie said, “The observation is acute, the dialogue sparkles, the movement between interiority and surveillance is deft. It is a novel of in-between places that keeps the reader off-balance to surprising, intelligent and sometimes eerie effect.”

You’ve described A Shock as “an enneaptych – a nine-panelled painting”. Can you say more about that? How did you come to this particular form for the novel?

Well, it came to me. It was supposed to be ten chapters, superficially able to stand alone. But then one of them crumbled, and I realised there was a centrepiece around which the others gathered in a sort of circle, and the stand-alone nature of them diminished. People seem slightly anxious about whether it’s stories, or a novel, or a novel-in-stories or what have you, and the idea of an enneaptych was supposed to be helpful, to offer a way of thinking about it. But of course people see the word enneaptych and they think I’ve written something outlandishly complicated. And I really haven’t.  

Your novel begins with an epigraph from Jean-Paul Sartre. “There is a wall between you and me. I can see you, I can speak to you, but you’re on the other side.” Walls between characters are a recurring motif in this novel. What drew you to that quotation?

Well that’s only part of it. It also has one character saying, “It seems to me it was easier, once upon a time. In Hamburg.” And ends with the other character reflecting that neither of them have ever been to Hamburg. So yes, walls, and the ways in which people are cut off from each other, or from themselves – that’s in the book. But also this idea of the invented, the fictions that we comfort ourselves with, the absurd lie, the confabulation. And it’s funny. Sartre is funny.

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There are also many places in the novel that feel concrete and recognisable – the streets, houses and pubs of Camberwell and Peckham. There are references to Muriel Spark, who also set stories in south London. Do you see this as a “London novel”, and to what extent is it in conversation with other literary explorations of the city?

It’s a London novel, yes. It’s actually a Camberwell and Peckham novel, more accurately. Specific streets, houses, shops, pubs. The geography of it isn’t fictional at all. And the reason for that is that I live here, and this book was my first in a while, and I think I needed to work with what was to hand. As Spark often did. I’m a fan of Spark’s, but our writing is very different. One of the characters in A Shock makes a mostly joking effort at persuading a pub landlord to turn the place into a Muriel Spark theme pub. Spark lived in a bedsit in Camberwell for ten years, and when I’m wandering around scouting out locations in which to set my fictions, I imagine her doing the same thing, on the same streets. And I like that idea. I am a lesser worker, but in the same line of work, and the work continues.

The characters in A Shock form a kind of community, but you also feel that for many of them London can be a harsh place, and there’s a sense that sometimes the city keeps people apart from one another. Is London a lonely city in your mind?

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It can be, of course. For many people it is possibly their chief experience of the place. And it’s harsh. And it’s increasingly hostile to many of its people mainly economically, but in many other ways too. We’re harassed by the Met; our council funding is pared to the bone by the Tories a party London hasn’t voted for; we’re exploited by capital; we’re attacked because we’re queer, or trans, or foreign, or black, or Asian, or older, or younger; our communities are commodified and sold back to us, or are just ripped apart. But. But. People cling on to each other, find ways of being together, or of feeling that they are part of something, even if at times they’re largely making it up, or it’s so fleeting as to be almost non-existent. But there is this instinct in people for solidarity, for sharing, for connection, and for laughter. And I wanted to try to capture some of that.

Much of this book is taken up by dialogue between characters: you have a keen sense of how people speak to one another, what is said and unsaid, how pub conversations rove and fluctuate. How do you approach questions of voice in your fiction?

Creating characters is a hit-and-miss sort of business, and I take a lot of missteps, and do a lot of thinking and sketching. But characters emerge, and I begin to get a sense of them, physically and psychologically, or temperamentally anyway. And then you just have to let them talk. Some of them of course refuse to say anything for ages. Harry, the barman for example. Others come voice-first as it were, and I hear them before I can see them like Pigeon, the young plumber’s mate. But then you just have to let them ramble on, and I write a large amount of dialogue that never gets near the finished work. I tell my students this and they never seem to completely believe me but I write pages and pages of characters just chatting back and forth about everything and nothing. I spend time with them, imagining them as fully as I can. And the voice asserts itself.

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

I was reading quite a bit of Clarice Lispector while I was working on it. And very different a lot of Jean-Patrick Manchette as well. I don’t know to what extent they have worked their way in to the book, if at all, but I think they changed what I was able to think about, what I was able to attempt, and they are important in that sense. And I listened to virtually nothing other than contemporary London jazz and particularly people like Rosie Turton, Nubya Garcia, Yussef Dayes and Alfa Mist, Moses Boyd. And Obongjayar.

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 wouldn’t describe A Shock as innovative. It’s not doing anything in terms of form that hasn’t been done before. But there is a lot of easy, comforting literature around, in which all sorts of assumptions are made about readers, including that all the reader wants is some more of what they’ve had before, or something that will reassure them in their lives. As if readers want always to be passive, and not have their day disrupted. And that’s not me. I have respect for my readers. They come equipped with their own creative imagination that I hope to meet with mine, and the fiction happens there in the mind of the reader. I want my reader to be surprised, or to be moved, or halted. I want them to feel that they are taken into something they otherwise would not have encountered. But I don’t think that’s innovation, I think it’s just trying to write as well as I can, and I use the shapes of stories, and characters, and language, in ways I think can best achieve that.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

The books that Goldsmiths usually shortlists tend to be among the more interesting publications in a given year. The prize celebrates writing as artistic practice, and writing that takes readers seriously. And that acknowledgement can mean a great deal to some writers.

And I think this is the case in part because it comes from Goldsmiths itself from within the department of english and creative writing, where a lot of fine writers work and teach. There’s an ecosystem there, involving the writers, and the linguists, and the translation people, and the comparative literature people, and the teaching staff throughout the English department. And this is devoted to literature as a living, changing immensely valuable cultural expression. All of this is under some considerable threat at the moment, with what seems to be a pretty ill-thought out restructuring plan. It’s the pointy end of the government’s attack on the humanities in universities, and their general drive to make this country as awful as it can be. So the pressure is coming from outside. But the current Goldsmiths management does not seem to understand what they have, and what they are risking. And does not seem to be listening to their own academic community about how best to proceed. So, they need to stop, and listen, and rethink this plan. Otherwise Goldsmiths will be a lesser place. So, yes, the prize is good, but it’s the home of the prize that currently needs our attention. Save Goldsmiths!

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

That could be a long list. I can’t help thinking of writers who aren’t around any more, whose writing was not celebrated as much as it might have been, and who run the risk of being forgotten. That could also be a long list. But how about Long Time, No See by Dermot Healy. Or Ann Quin’s Berg. Lanark by Alasdair Gray. Or Ice by Anna Kavan.

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize will be announced in an online ceremony on 10 November and will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 18 November.

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