Interview by Shelagh Weeks
Professor Susan Sellers is based at St. Andrews University.Her specialisms straddle three main areas: creative writing, modernist and contemporary women’s writing, and literary theory. Her novel ‘Vanessa and Virginia’ is a fictional account of the intense sibling rivalry that existed between Virginia Woolf and her painter sister Vanessa Bell (Two Ravens Press in Britain and by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the United States). In this interview she discusses her latest novel ‘Given the Choice’ is published by Cillian Press.
What was the genesis of the novel, and how did the ambitious, yet flawed character of Marion emerge?
I spent a number of years in Paris as a doctoral student and had a variety of jobs to make ends meet. I came across a businesswoman I suspect may have been Marion’s alter ego. What struck me about her was the way she used her considerable intelligence and creativity to further the careers of other people. My previous novel Vanessa and Virginia explored how the making of art was essential to both Virginia Woolf and her artist sister Vanessa Bell. Marion is different. She realises early on she doesn’t have what it takes to become a professional artist,so her energy and passion are expressed vicariously through her clients. I liked this idea of a female Svengali. Another impetus was that moment in life when we must decide whether or not to become a parent. For women, the issue is pressing because we cannot easily have a baby after the age of 40. So we must make the choice in our 20s and 30s which often disadvantages us professionally. In Marion’s case the situation is complicated because her husband is desperate to start a family. The other strand was our infinite capacity for self-delusion. Marion is convinced she has plenty of time – and in the way we all do when we want to believe something, can produce stories of women having late babies to support her stance. Marion deludes herself about various things, but I was conscious of the flaw at the heart of the feminist message which says women can have it all on the same basis as men. While studies indicate men’s age is a factor in conception, men can and do go on fathering children until much later in life. One of the characters Marion comes across is the forty-seven-year-old Amanda, who has missed the window when she might have become a mother because of divorce.
This is a tightly structured and crafted novel, with background detail carefully inserted to build and develop key themes. Rather than use chapters, you have given titles or headings for each section: I wonder why you chose to direct reader attention in this way? Sometimes the headings are merely descriptive, but increasingly they seem to imply, comment, are playful or employed ironically e.g. ‘the waiting game’/ ‘just deserts’/ ‘happy ever after’.
I always write my first draft of a novel as freely as I can, telling myself that at this stage no one will ever see it and I can therefore try out what I like. The headings were there from the start, and I realised – as I cut and rewrote – that they could be useful in a number of ways. Though I wanted to write a novel with interesting characters, I didn’t want readers to empathise with them too closely. I enjoy novels where I become so wrapped up in the characters that my hopes for them dominate my reading, but I didn’t want this to happen here. The headings helped create this distance – signalling the text’s artifice to readers. In line with its title, the novel gives the reader the choice of ending, and the headings were crucial in signalling these. There are three endings rather than a straight either/or choice because I wanted to indicate a spectrum of possibilities. The endings are deliberately generic. There’s the inconclusive ‘real-life’ ending, an ending where Marion gets her come-uppance, as well as a happier outcome.
The novel overtly explores social contexts, growing up, houses and homes, parenting, creativity, the way that art expands meaning and consciousness, ageing; it touches on issues such as single parenthood, poverty, youth employment, and also, quite potently, exploits the undercurrents and symbolism of dress, surfaces, nourishment, hunger, place, spells, water and colour. Was such a conscious (or unconscious)weaving of the explicit and implicit in your book an incremental development?
My novels go through many drafts, and change each time. In this case I began with a number of ingredients: a successful if manipulative businesswoman, the art world setting, the need to make a decision about children. Then there’s the stage of ‘what if?’ If my businesswoman’s married, what would her husband be like? What if he wants children and she doesn’t? What might make her not want to have a baby? Is her career a sufficient reason? Or is there is something more? And of course the more one works, the more the material opens up avenues for exploration and reveals ingredients of its own. What’s essential is that any exploration or ingredient I incorporate should fit the novel’s arc.
At times, as I questioned or disliked Marion’s assertions, her use of money, power, and her interactions with others, I wondered if a male protagonist might escape such scrutiny and whether you had deliberately set up such reader reactions so we were forced to question our own judgements and our choices as a reader?
Given the Choice is set in 2007-2008, just before and then during the sub-prime fiasco that not only led to wide-spread bankruptcy, but also fuelled the realisation that free-market capitalism might not be the best model for a world with finite resources. Money is a crucial element in the novel. It underscores the hype of the art world setting,and removes any financial consideration from Marion’s decision about maternity. It also gives Marion power since she can use it to transform the lives of the artists she represents. I liked the idea of taking a ‘tricky’woman as my protagonist. Marion is capable of generosity, but can also be ruthless and resort to lying when the going gets tough. We have plenty of sympathetic women in fiction now,and we even have some downright bad ones (who usually get their just deserts). What we don’t have enough of are ones in the middle -perhaps because they are more like ourselves then we care to admit. Ambitious women, for instance, who when circumstances require play dirty.
I felt, throughout, as if you were setting up the possibility of Marion and Jean-Claude having some sort of liaison (just as the novel hints that Edward may look elsewhere). Was this deliberate, and if so, was such plotting a ploy to sustain tension, or was it a gesture towards those things in life that might happen, yet don’t?
That’s fascinating! Jean-Claude is certainly one of the most important characters in the novel and his relationship with Marion is central. I’m not sure I ever imagined they would have an affair – Jean-Claude is too chaotic for Marion, and he despises her easy wealth -though when their business relationship breaks down they miss each other. The notion that what happens in life is more often than not the result of contingency is an important strand to the book. I’m intrigued and thrilled to discover you felt an affair between Jean-Claude and Marion was hinted at, because it becomes yet one more thing that might have occurred.
I struggled with the shift into multiple versions of the same event; the narrative, up until that point, had seemed to inhabit a different sort of terrain. Nevertheless, I appreciated what this conflation added, structurally. Can you expand a little on these writerly choices?
I wanted to lead readers through all three endings so that the dissatisfaction or ‘rightness’ of each could be experienced and reflected on. This meant I ruled out an announcement that might have prompted readers to only look at one. At the same time,I was aware of the need to make what I was doing clear. I couldn’t help thinking of John Fowles and how, when he wrote multiple endings for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, some of his readers complained to his publisher that there had been a printing error. It was the painter, Jean-Claude, who came to my rescue. He’s working on a series of paintings which all have the same subject. However, each picture is different – because his mood changes, or there’s a shift in the way the ingredients assemble, or because a new perspective emerges. Jean-Claude also has the last word. As he looks at his unsold canvases,another version of his subject occurs to him which he resolves to try. So I hope the reader is left with the sense that there are many more possible outcomes than the three I have sketched in.
I particularly enjoyed the dialogue, many of the pacey jump-cuts between parallel stories, the flashbacks and the writing of Marion’s near drowning; what sections did you most enjoy writing?
I always enjoy those parts of the writing where words seem to flow. This can happen at any stage, though I suspect it does so most frequently when I have been able to clear some proper time for writing and don’t have my head half-full of all the other things I should be doing. Personally I find it very hard to write in an odd hour here and there (though I am admiring and envious of writers who can). I seem to need to carve out much larger blocks of time in order to immerse myself, and for what I write to have any chance of coming alive on the page, let alone flow. In Given the Choice, I enjoyed researching the contemporary art world and then creating the art installation Marion takes Peeter (a young Estonian pianist) to see. I also enjoyed writing about the music Peeter plays. And I have a soft spot for Jutta (Peeter’s Estonian girlfriend) who is perhaps the only character not to be caught up in Marion’s spell.
Conversely, what did you struggle most with in the novel?
Marion is a fairy-tale figure – she can make her clients’ dreams come true. But (as Jutta realises) she is also manipulative, destructive and witch-like. In fairy tale characters are schematic – often reduced to functions of the plot – and their power resides in inviting us to match our experiences against the templates they offer. I think there is currently too much emphasis placed on characters in fiction – on whether or not they are likeable, on how easily we can relate to them – at the expense of everything else a work of fiction contains. I don’t particularly like Mr or Mrs Ramsay or even Lily Briscoe in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and yet I think it one of the most powerful novels I have ever read. With Marion as my central character, I was aware of a tension between wanting to distance readers from her, and providing a rationale for why she behaves as she does. This was particularly difficult when it came to her back story, and made me hesitate about how much of it to give. In the end, quite a few details about her growing up were either omitted or alluded to in passing, so I could focus only on those which were crucial (such as her relationship with her mother). It was Marion’s husband Edward who enabled me to make these issues explicit. Quite late on, he gives up his high-paid job as a financier and decides to enrol for a degree in Classics, which is a long-held ambition. One of the essays he has to write is on myth, fairy tale and what it is we want fiction to do.