A few weeks ago I read a novel so extraordinary it still resonates. anemogram by Rebecca Grandsen is a road trip, a fairy story, human drama and contemporary urban myth in one unusual package.
Its effect on me meant that I had to invite Rebecca to answer a few questions and offer some insight into the creative process, imagery and concepts that lie behind anemogram. Here is the interview.
We never truly find out who or what Sarah (Rachel) is. Did you intend her to be an avatar or representative of something, or is she literally what she appears to be in the story?
I know what I think Sarah is but it was my intention to leave her nature and origins open to interpretation. With anemogram I wanted to synthesize the feelings of a transient relationship, and explore the fact that they can have a great impact but are defined by vacuum. In a way I think David is more unreachable than she is, for all her mystery, although superficially he seems more grounded in reality. Their relationship partly addresses presumptions surrounding fantasy projections being separate to everyday life, when our impulses gather these notions, and the way we live may be governed by delusion and wish to a greater extent than we realise and feel comfortable acknowledging. In the end certainties become irrelevant, which can be an unsettling prospect. I very much feel it is my role to step away and leave the reader to decide on where they put Sarah, as she is a vehicle for whatever the reader brings to the book.
Sarah describes the world around her, sometimes in very prosaic terms and sometimes fantastical. Is this the world from a seven yr. old’s point of view or is Sarah the archetypal ‘unreliable narrator?’
Sarah’s voice was one of the elements I thought longest and hardest about. At times she displays incredible vulnerability but there are glimpses of an adult state of mind at other times, which throws doubt on the validity of her innocence. These adult insights take on an uncanny texture when coming from someone supposedly so young, and I wanted this to frame a complexity that is unusual, and hence mistrusted, in a child. I was conscious to make her more adult statements appear as if she could be repeating parrot fashion conversation above her years. I was thinking of children diagnosed as sociopathic as part of a template for her character. Those children who have suffered tremendous abuse or neglect speak in a way that navigates them through a hostile adult world. I wanted Sarah to have this option as a possible explanation for her actions, and there are certain pointers in the book that hint at this. Sarah’s otherworldly presence may have substance or may be a consequence of what the world has projected onto her. Again this is for the reader to decide, and I try to tackle the confusion of response to a child who acts this way. As an aside, it is perhaps more frightening to discount any supernatural reason for her nature and actions.
The character of Tinker is a fantastical element of the story. Does he come from Sarah’s imagination or the world around her?
I think it is important to the story to keep Tinker in the eye of the beholder. I will say that I was inspired to create an outside voice for Sarah by reading about the invention of imaginary friends for use as an emotional outlet by neglected children. Tinker’s stories also reflect the changing internal psychological states that Sarah is wrestling with in her unconscious mind.
The young girl / adult relationship was inverted in anemogram, with Sarah manipulating David. Did you find it difficult to write about that relationship in a way that was authentic or plausible?
I tried to frame their relationship as one in constant flux, where agendas are unclear perhaps even to the characters themselves, and the dynamics are constantly shifting. Sarah does superficially appear to be steering David, but the question is raised of how much David is aware of this and letting it happen. As the adult the onus is on David to make the right decisions, something he is not equipped to do. For this reason it was important to instill both of their characters with oblique flaws. David is the character in anemogram who is most directly influenced by specific real people and the unbalanced nature of his interactions with Sarah have elements taken from personal observations. The power he gives to Sarah is one he can reclaim at any point but chooses not to, and although Sarah takes this as an opportunity to exert her own manipulations, the morality of letting a child overstep those boundaries is at the heart of the book and one of the central questions I attempt to raise. Sarah is defined by the elemental and it is tempting to attribute a forceful negative strength to her, but it is Sarah who struggles the most in coming to terms with her own impulses.
You talk about edges (having lived by the sea all your life), but in my review I said there’s a lot of inversion in anemogram. Both can be seen as a form of transition where one thing becomes something else. Are you simply fascinated by it or are you looking to discover something ‘along the edge?’
I love this question, as it has prompted me to take a critical look back over my writing. One of my first short stories dealt with someone trying to claim the horizon as their own, and I can see the exploration of these boundary points and edges as a consistent thread. Some of the attraction has to do with the sense that the fringes are where pretenses fall away, where there is a distillation of fundamental wants and needs. It is also a dumping ground for the unpalatable, a place where society pushes aspects of itself it doesn’t want reflected back, and I think a great deal can be learned by looking at what is rejected. Those who choose to embrace the edges are also making a purposeful decision to leave something behind.
When you set out to write anemogram was your intention to write about an ‘odd couple,’ a ‘road trip’ or something more allegorical and abstract?
I knew that I wanted something that challenged assumptions, both the reader’s and my own. The few ideas for anemogram that I had before sitting down to writing it evolved from a self imposed deadline. I decided upon a female protagonist and to address the skewing of the view of the relationship between men and children that has been perpetuated by sections of the media in recent years. I had two weeks to come up with something that had enough substance to take me forward into National Novel Writing Month, and the first draft of anemogram is the result. It very much unfolded as I went along, new layers being expanded upon. Fortunately, everything I needed for the story was present from the start, even if this was on an instinctual level initially. This soon married with a more conscious approach as I progressed and by the end I was confident I had something that was cohesive and justified the investment. Another, and selfish, reason for writing anemogram in the style I chose to is that I wanted to write a book that I would choose to read. The main mission objective with anemogram was to explore some quite abstract themes through character progression. Both Sarah and David are going through transformative times, and their relationship is defined by and facilitates this. Their internal worlds govern this book, with outside events almost incidental.
Did you find the process of writing a novel easier or harder than writing short stories?
anemogram is the most challenging piece of writing I’ve undertaken, without question. Whereas I always have a commitment to not bullshit, to say what needs to be said and leave, I was especially conscious of this aspect when writing anemogram and part of the process was me policing myself and constantly being my own bullshit detector. anemogram was an emotional commitment as well as an intellectual one, and writing it in a month seemingly out of nowhere was a new and intense experience for me. My main concern was to keep the voice authentic, whatever the outcome. If that had meant that the result was unreleasable then so be it.
Reviewers appear to have enjoyed the ambiguity of the events and opacity of the main character. What did you expect readers to take from the story?
I hope readers can take away what they bring with them. It was important to me that anemogram, and any of my writing really, creates the space for the reader to impress upon the book their presence and perspective. I’m very conscious that my role is to step away, make the invitation and hope that it will be accepted.
Did you know an anemogram is a recording made by a wind gauge? (Anemometer.)
Not before stumbling across it by using a random word generator to find a title! It fits better than anything I could come up with.
How has the sea inspired you in your writing? Why do you think landscapes influence a writer’s work?
I have a string of stories set in the same universe as anemogram and although the sea is not front and centre there is a sense of perpetual awareness of its presence, pushing in from the periphery. A very recent story has a reference to the sea of glass mentioned in Revelations. I was intrigued by this as it seems like the visionary stretching for some way to convey the indescribable. I have returned for a few key scenes in different stories to the cliff edge, where the sea rubs up against the land, and it shows itself to be at once immovable in the short term, but a continually shifting boundary over time. The tension between permanence and flux is a recurring theme for me. Having an appreciation and exposure from a young age to the beauty and cruelty of the natural world, it is instinctual to me to return to it to illustrate inner life.
Do you find self-publishing liberating or frustrating?
Incredibly freeing. Writing is a serious business for me; as in my only concern is releasing something I consider worthy of someone’s time and that I’d be interested in myself. If I find that I don’t write anything that fits that criteria then I won’t release. I’m really not concerned if anemogram ends up being my only release or not. Self-publishing is perfect for me as the writing is paramount. The only frustrating part of self-publishing a book is being skint and attempting to do your author duty to the book in terms of promotion. Overall, I feel immensely excited about being part of an increasingly lively writing community, and I’ve discovered some kindred spirits with awesome talent while exploring the indie world.
Do you think self-publishing will ever be taken seriously by mainstream media or is it the punk rock of literature?
I don’t really care, and I’m not taking that stance to side with the punk, honestly! I can see pockets or scenes in self-publishing gaining a grudging acknowledgement from mainstream publishing, but this will always be motivated by convenience. Being an enthusiastic advocate of the DIY ethic I’m bound to side with the messy creatives and be of the opinion that credit in the straight world equals death. But it’s never that easy, and the assumption that indie means substandard or an inferior product is slowly being overturned. I hope the indie scene takes all it can from mainstream media and uses its own tactics against it, whilst retaining its spirit. It’s a great leveler and the fact that so many different voices are being heard a positive thing. Being from a working class background it’s an important avenue for getting that perspective across.
Considering anemogram appears to break so many rules, do you find any conventional author advice useful?
Haha! This hits home. Being an author new to releasing publicly I’ve been amazed at how generous fellow self-published authors have been in sharing the lessons they’ve learned from their time in the indie world. It is also true that it is important to be able to shift through this information and reflect on whether it applies to me and what I’m doing. I do have a very singular vision for my writing, and while I’m full of doubts away from the page once there I put them aside.
Can readers expect another novel from you?
I’ve started writing one but it’s slow going and I have no idea if what I’ll end up with will be decent enough to release. I am working on some horror stories for a collaborative collection, and am considering releasing my own containing stories set in the same fictional world as anemogram. I also would love to put out something with a group of supremely talented people who go under the name of Cardboard Wall Empire. Whether any of this happens depends on me getting my act together, so it’s anyone’s guess.
anemogram is available on Amazon here (To find it in your own national Amazon store change co.uk to your own domain eg .com .ca etc)
Rebecca’s blog is here: RebeccaGrandsen.wordpress.com
And you can find her author page on Goodreads here
My thanks to Rebecca for taking the time to answer the questions.