Liz Jensen and Matthew Quick became penpals and friends a decade ago. Here Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, Sorta Like A Rock Star, Boy 21, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, The Good Luck of Right Now, Love May Fail, Every Exquisite Thing and the forthcoming The Reason You’re Alive, talks to Liz about her most recent novel, The Uninvited.
Q:The Guardian called The Uninvited a “genre-busting ghost story.” Do you agree? And if so, why was it particularly necessary to bust-up genres?
LJ: I like the idea of being a genre-buster: it’s like having a super-power. Which I’d really love. But yes, I think it’s a useful description for what I do, which is to remove elements of different genres from their rather stultifying pigeonholes and get them working together in the best interests of whatever story I’ve decided to tell. I see it as a form of liberationism. The Story Liberation Movement. Can you see it catching on? I can. You could have a label, like you do for free-range organic meat: this novel was not raised in any Category. It roamed freely without confines and totally unaware of its identity before being processed and packaged in the traditional manner.
But seriously, what’s important to remember is that fiction-writing existed long before bookshops and libraries came up with their labelling systems. And that it can still thrive outside them. If my novels are the proof of that, I’m happy. If librarians and booksellers get a headache trying to decide which shelf to put one of my novels on, I’m sorry. But here’s a tip, if any of you are reading this. Just put one copy on each. In the UK, I’ve seen my novels under Crime, Mystery, General/Literary Fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy. Although I recognise it makes it harder of readers to find me, it still makes me proud.
Q: I was lucky enough to read The Uninvited in galley form and was able to deliver feedback to you in person under a tree; it was a lovely and productive afternoon. Can you tell us a little about your process? How many people read your manuscript before it becomes a book? How do you decide whom to trust with your manu? How do your books get written?
LJ: I don’t know how they get written. Whenever I finish one I think, how the hell did I do that? The process itself feels never-ending, and it changes with each book, and it involves great exhilaration and great despair and a lot of help from many people. Including, last time (and next time too, please) one Matthew Quick. Who gives terrific feedback.
Editors at publishing houses don’t have time to edit much any more, so I rely on good readers for feedback. Most are writers, but all are good readers. There are two friends I like to run ideas past verbally without showing them anything on the page: they are both out-of-the-box thinkers, brilliant at the planning stage. When I have a first chapter and a rough synopsis (which I never stick to, incidentally), in come my earliest readers, both thriller writers, who give me feedback on structure. Essential at this stage. Later on, when I have what feels like an early draft, I’ll deploy my core readers, who give me moral support and constructive criticism. Among is my friend and fellow-writer Polly Coles, talented broadcaster, editor, and author of the wonderful essay collection The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice. She has been my chief reader from the very start of my career 20 years ago. I’ll also show early work to my agents Clare Alexander and Lesley Thorne, and my husband Carsten, who is always practical but also wonderfully enthusiastic: his faith in me never wavers. All writers should be married to him. Later on, depending on the research required by the novel, I’ll also ask specialist readers to have a look, either at the whole novel or at relevant passages, for accuracy. Over the years I’ve used a psychiatrist, a doctor, a therapist, a former GI bride, a wheelchair-user, an engineer and a geologist.
So as you can see, there’s a whole army of people involved – and I’m grateful to them all.
Q: Many of my readers—like me—consider themselves members of the mental health community. Why did you choose a narrator diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome? How did Hesketh Lock’s worldview help you move the story forward? What advantages does he have? Was it hard to get into his head?
LJ: No, easy – and such fun. I loved being Hesketh. Most of my novels are written from the first person, and often from the male point of view. To me, writing is all about being someone I’m not, so being male is a good start. I just love being a man, I can’t tell you why exactly, except to say that I find it very liberating.
I decided that my hero should be an Aspie for the very simple reason that I was writing a ghost story, so I needed the person investigating the phenomenon to be super-rational. There are no “rules” about Aspie behaviour, so I didn’t do any research as such: I just used what I had observed, and guessed the rest. I ran Hesketh past a couple of male friends who are on the spectrum, and they reacted with great enthusiasm. In fact each thought I had based Hesketh on him, so I knew I was doing something right. Ever since the novel came out in the UK, I’ve had great feedback from Aspies.
I’ve also had some interesting reactions from female readers, who admit to having fallen a bit in love with Hesketh. I did too. I think we want to save him from himself. But it’s a mistake: he doesn’t need saving. He’s fine the way he is.
Q: Children commit horrific crimes in this novel. Did a child ever attack you? Do you fear children? I know you have two boys, whom you love very much. How did you come up with this frightening concept?
LJ: I adore children. I’ve been one. We all have. So it’s not like children are another species: they’re us, before we grew older. I wanted to explore the idea of children in a scary setting because of all the things they’re supposed to be: sweet, innocent, vulnerable. The children in The Uninvited are actually all those things too. But something terrifying has happened to them. Their minds have been hijacked.
Q: Like me, you are married to a novelist. Carsten Jensen, author of the fantastic We, The Drowned. What are the pros and cons of being married to a writer?
LJ: The pros: Having a soul-mate who understands the agony, the ecstasy and everything in between, including Blank Page Syndrome. Who can read your work and make astute professional judgements that are not just about cheering you up. Who doesn’t judge you as a layabout when you break off work to read a book or watch a movie. Yet who keeps you on the ball in terms of productivity.
It’s also nice being on the receiving end of some very eloquent pillow-talk.
The cons: All of the above. With the exception of the pillow-talk. That always goes down well.
Q: Is it possible to get Carsten’s reaction to your last answer? Do you see it the same way, Carsten? (Also, do you want to say anything about The Uninvited?)
CJ: As always I completely agree with my wife. English literature still has a storytelling tradition that is very much alive, while Danish fiction seems eternally trapped in an antiquated modernist tradition where plots are the great taboo. They’re seen as a corrupt capitulation to shameful, vulgar commercialism. I wasn’t a very accomplished novelist before I met Liz. She practically taught me everything I know about the art of fiction. And she more than once saved We, the Drowned from utter shipwreck. We are very different writers so I never feel we compete with one other. On the contrary.
I used to imagine I could never live with another artist or writer: one self-absorbed, pompous character in the family is more than enough! But I was wrong. Liz isn’t like that. Quite the opposite. And she’s a daily source of inspiration.
When it comes to The Uninvited I react as I always do when I read her work: with open-jawed amazement. Where does it all come from? My own fiction is born of masses of painstaking research and a tiny spark of imagination. In Liz’s case there’s relatively little research – but a roaring furnace of fantasy.
Q: I know you watched our last presidential election closely. Why do you think Americans should read The Uninvited, aside from the fact that it’s a brilliant, beautifully written novel? Do you think the subject matter is particularly important here on this side of the pond?
LJ: It’s a novel about a global epidemic of children are attacking adults, and adults committing bizarre acts of sabotage. No nation or part of the world is unaffected. The phenomenon has the global reach of You-Tube or Coca-Cola. So nationality is irrelevant: the crisis strikes the whole world. Including America.
Some readers have interpreted the children’s behaviour as being a reaction to the societies they live in, or an indictment of sloppy parenting and bad schools. It’s not. It’s more insidious than that. Having said that, the novel has a particular relevance for more developed Western societies like ours.
Q: You now live in Copenhagen and have embraced the culture there. Will you please share something wonderfully Danish with my readers?
LJ:The Danish language is very literal. So cremation is “body-burning” and a nipple is a “breast-wart.” For some reason, of all the quadrupeds, it’s the lizard that gets the honour of being called the “four-legs.” It’s said to be the hardest language to learn apart from Vietnamese. And the Danes manage to get along extraordinarily well, despite not having a word for “please”.
Q: Liz, my friend, thank you so much for this good exchange.
LJ: But we haven’t even started. I haven’t said how much I love your YA books, or confessed to having actually stolen the phrase “a robot made of meat” from Sorta Like A Rock Star.
Or told you that I plan to steal a lot more.