When the British novelist Diana Evans published her ground-breaking debut, 26a, in 2005, it was rightly greeted with great acclaim. Here was a Bildungsroman of such daring and sustained elegance that it felt like a gorgeous dance of a novel. In many ways, it is apropos that this book which focused on the secret bond that exists between twins was followed in 2009 by the equally masterful The Wonder, a novel rooted in the world of dance.
When asked whether she ever found the writing of 26a cathartic, Evans points out that this was not the case for her:
“26a took me four or five years to write and it was difficult, though I have since realised, really no more difficult than writing any other novel. Novels for me are slowly-developing, tricksy structures that take some probing at many different doors to find the right way in. Once I’ve found it it gets easier, but it can take a long time to find it, too long, for I am a Virgo, I like immediate neatness and speedy efficiency. No such joy for me with novels. I had a bunch of haphazard scenes that I was sure belonged in 26a before I found the right way to arrange them, and once this happened it was like swimming out into a warm dark ocean knowing the way would come clear to me and the light would come up. I’d finally found my voice, and that was such a good feeling. The process was never cathartic for me though, as people often imagine. It was a monument to a lost love that I was obligated to build. I had no choice in it. Even when I tried to walk away, because it was just too hard, it wouldn’t let me go. Although it was a very personal book, in order to write it I had to switch a large part of myself off and disassociate myself from the story, for quite an unhealthily long time, so in a sense a catharsis never felt possible or even appropriate.”
Miranda July once told me in an interview that the internal pressure of creating sometimes outweighed the external pressures of producing art. Does Evans ever feel this way? That our internal voices are sometimes much more hardcore than any pressure from our publishers, agents or readers?
“Yes, there is an internal pressure which is just as insistent as the external pressure, but it’s a much kinder voice I think. I would describe it more as an impulse, a compulsion. It’s something that you have to do for yourself, to manifest yourself in the world as the person that you are. I try very hard to listen to this voice more than the external voice, but it’s easy sometimes for it to get drowned out amidst that industry pressure which, once you’ve been published, whether you have a publishing deal or not, is always there. I like that Edward P. Jones attitude you told me about, that whether or not or when he writes another book is an indifference to him, that if he is called to do it he will. That is the best way to create, in the spirit of kindness and acceptance, to yourself as well as to the work. It’s something I aspire towards and try to hold on to amid the wide irrelevant chatter of expectation. You don’t write for money. You write because you want to say something, to express something you’ve felt very strongly, or seen. Which is why I agree with Marilyn Robinson when she said “every writer needs a job”.”
Evans is reluctant to discuss the particulars of her novel-in-progress, which has been several years in the making, but she does say that it’s a novel about relationships.
“There are very few novels that depict black people in their ordinariness, in their small everyday moments, their basic human tensions and anxieties aside from the bigger themes that overshadow them, and that is something I am trying to do. It’s very tricksy, like the others, and hard-going. When I sit down to write I feel a great tenderness towards it and an incredible fear, but I persist.”
Does she feel that there is still have a long way to go in terms of the exposure afforded to black literature in the UK?
“There is always room for more. I’d like to see an end to black sections in bookshops, I find them slightly insulting. And there is obviously a dire need for more people of color in the publishing world. But it’s not something I ever feel particularly hung up on. I believe that with persistence and focus talent surfaces. We work steadily and stay attuned and true to ourselves and each success makes way for another. I do think though that mainstream publishers need to start taking ‘risks’ again, not just publishing the same old sure bets, it’s very boring.”
When asked what advice she would offer her thirteen-year-old self, she says:
“Don’t be slowed by fear. Eat fear or fear will eat you. But also know when to draw in and be kind to yourself when the world is too much. Always listen to your inner voice, be steered by it. Basically, don’t listen to anyone but yourself.”
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