An Interview with Francis Spufford

A Death Sentence, Then a Wedding
Francis Spufford by Bart Koetsier
Francis Spufford by Bart Koetsier

There’s more life and variety in a single page of Francis Spufford’s prose than there is in many full-length books. Spufford is a writer of polymathic intelligence. He’s written what still stands as the best account of the strange, powerful, and dangerous love felt by the English for Arctic exploration (1999’s I May Be Some Time); he’s written a nonfiction novel—or is it a fictional work of history?—about the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s (2010’s Red Plenty); and he’s written a brilliant work of Christian apologetics (2013’s cheekily titled Unapologetic, which Paul Elie described in Commonweal “as an account of Christian belief as David Foster Wallace might have written it”). No matter what genre he happens to be working in, Spufford displays great wit and even greater intelligence.

June saw the American publication of Spufford’s Golden Hill. Unmistakably a novel, Golden Hill is set in Manhattan in 1746, with a plot that seems ripped from an 18th-century work of fiction: A mysterious man named Mr. Smith sails from London and arrives at a New York City counting-house with a bill of credit for a thousand pounds and not much else. He refuses to describe his past or what he plans to do with such riches: “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore,” he says, “I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” Spufford inhabits his chosen century to the hilt. The prose often reads like Fielding, and the story centers on many of the period’s most vexing and vexed issues: the relation between crown and colony; commerce and its relation to slavery; slavery and its relation to justice. Golden Hill has already won several prizes, including the Costa First Novel Award, and I suspect it’ll pick up more.

I spoke with Spufford by e-mail.

 

Anthony Domestico: This is being described as your first novel, though Red Plenty certainly borrowed from fiction’s big bag of tricks. How would you describe the differences between Red Plenty and Golden Hill? What was it about Golden Hill that called for the free and unfettered use of fiction? Do you put much stock in genre differences, or do you find this is more a question for the marketer/critic than for the reader/writer?

Francis Spufford: For me, Red Plenty was a genuine compromise between fiction and nonfiction: a house built directly on the borderline with doors opening both ways onto both literary territories. Or more creepily—pick your metaphor—a product of the uncanny valley between the two, where things are not quite fully alive from the imaginative point of view, but not quite fully dead either. It was a book in which characters were written as livingly as I could manage, and spoke dialogue as real as I could manage, but nevertheless were subordinate to a structure of explanation. Red Plenty was about economics, first, and only secondarily about people. Opinions vary about whether that’s enough to banish it from the category of fiction. I have friends whose opinions I respect who insist on taking its first five words (“This is not a novel”) ironically. Its publishing status is certainly uncertain. It came out in the United States as a novel, in Britain as “history.” Consequently, Golden Hill is both my first novel and my second novel, simultaneously, depending on where you’re looking. Or I’ve published two first novels.  Or I started writing fiction with my second novel. Or something. But this I do know: Golden Hill is primarily a story about particular people, and only after that is it any kind of meditation on a theme, or on history. It’s not an explanation. For me that’s a decisive change, irrespective of all the blurring categories.

AD: Why do you think there’s so much critical anxiety surrounding historical fiction? It seems that whenever a “literary” writer publishes a brilliant “historical” novel, the critic needs to begin by explaining why this isn’t really an example of the genre. Here, for example, is James Wood’s opening move in a review of Hilary Mantel: “Both this new book and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, are mysteriously successful historical novels, a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness. One of the reasons for this literary success is that Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties.” Did you have any anxieties about writing in this oft condescended-to genre?

FS: There may be genres that are too narrow, too inherently shoddy for interesting things to happen within them, though it’s always easier to think so from a distance. But on this particular point James Wood—a colleague of mine once a very long time ago, and usually one of the subtlest judges of fictional effect that we have—seems to me to be off his trolley, barking up the wrong tree, playing an extended solo on the sousaphone of error. Hilary Mantel does not purvey a lightly costumed modernity. The historical novel is not “a somewhat gimcrack genre,” but one of the permanent central possibilities in the repertoire of realistic fiction as such, ever since its very beginning.  After all, novels always deal with characters in settings, with integrated fictive worlds where the destinies of imagined people are shaped by, evolve from, the possibilities of some specific human habitat; and there’s no reason why this integrated curiosity should not be directed at a setting defined by a historical moment, as well as by place and class and culture and race and religion. I think the anxiety about historical fiction comes from people conflating the idea that genre fiction offers predictable pleasures—a canned experience, stipulated on the outside of the packaging—with the idea that a past period offers, somehow, a closed and second-hand field for the imagination. One known in advance, and therefore unambitious compared to the bolder, braver novelistic effort to take the measure of the present.

What this leaves out is the desire in ambitious historical fiction for, precisely, an encounter with difference; the wish, on the writer’s part and the reader’s, for an intelligible engagement with those things in another time which are not known in advance. Almost every major writer has wanted to try this out, one way or another. War and Peace is a historical novel. In Search of Lost Time is a historical novel. Middlemarch is a historical novel, for heaven’s sake—deliberately set a generation before the time of writing, on the cusp of a sudden social liquefaction and transformation, so that George Eliot could think about the fluidity of her society by looking at a provincial microcosm just before all that was solid started melting into air. The backward look needn’t be a sign of a preference for the easy, the predigested. It can be the writer’s imagination reaching out towards something richly, productively difficult: something which will put up just as many obstacles to being known as the present does, if not more so. Anyway, I think the world is too interesting to worry much about where (generically) you get your tools to describe it, so long as they work.

The backward look needn’t be a sign of a preference for the easy, the predigested.

AD: Why set your novel in 18th-century New York? When did you first get interested in this specific time and place? And what kind of research was involved in fully and imaginatively inhabiting it?

FS: I’m contrary enough by temperament, and enough of an irony-glutton, that I really liked the idea of an embryonic New York—only about seven thousand people in 1746, including a thousand or so slaves—which reversed almost every one of our conventional, contemporary associations with the city. Somewhere that was tiny rather than huge, provincial rather than metropolitan, suspicious and exclusive rather than open and diverse, and (above all) as gossipy and intimately interconnected as a Jane Austen village, instead of being a byword for urban anonymity. And yet in which you could also see, in embryo, both a phantom of the city to come, and the unmistakable early signature of modernity itself. Money as a power in itself, Enlightenment politics, new principles of self-fashioning—all of them are stirring visibly, the more so I hope in that I’ve put the novel a generation before the Revolution, in an American ancien régime which is both resisting and enabling what’s coming.  I chose a secretive outsider from London—the genuine metropolis of the age—as my viewpoint character, so that the resemblances and differences, the familiarities and unfamiliarities, would flicker backwards and forwards, with the city unknown to Mr. Smith, and Mr. Smith unknown to the city. If I’ve done it right, all sorts of individual dependences and independences ought to come slyly into view, both in Mr. Smith and in all the people that he meets, from grandees to jailbirds, from the mob that tries to kill him to Tabitha Lovell, the merchant’s daughter who tries to—well; I shouldn’t say too much about that.

In terms of research, I was liberated in a funny way by how little remains, physically, of the place Smith visits. The street plan; the railings around the bowling green at the foot of Broadway; the graves in Trinity churchyard and the recently excavated slaves’ burial ground. That’s about it. I walked round and round Lower Manhattan with a photocopy of an 18th-century street map, ignoring the buildings and attending as hard as I could to the ground underfoot.

 

AD: One big structural decision—one big structural gamble, perhaps—was to keep the true nature of Richard Smith’s quest hidden from the reader, this despite the fact that you tend to use a close third-person that is aligned with his perspective. Can you talk me through that decision: what you hoped it would accomplish, and what difficulties it presented? Did you look to any other novels as models for how this dance of narrative withholding might be done most elegantly?

FS: I wanted the strong form of story you get from a mystery ruthlessly sustained almost to the end of the book, plus at the same time, since I’m greedy, for the reader to be intimately engaged with Smith, so that he didn’t come across as just a walking puzzle. This meant I needed a strange kind of half-intimate viewpoint, a forced perspective on him maybe, in which you rarely get direct access to his thoughts or feelings, but are kept aware of Smith as a body and as a bundle of moods, Smith drunk, Smith afraid, Smith elated, Smith aroused, Smith flailing. And of course Smith incorrigibly talking, under all circumstances. In some ways it was a question of continually frustrating the reader, and yet providing equally continual payoffs for that frustration —a flow of compensating pleasures. There were possibilities I could draw on in the stiffly rich, deliberately theatrical language I was using, and in other games I was playing with past novelistic form. But in fact my best model for how to do it, I found in Megan Whalen Turner’s wonderful recent series of YA novels, The Queen’s Thief, every one of which plays a different virtuoso trick with viewpoint.  

 

AD: The 18th-century novel is, at least in my teaching experience, a no-man’s land of literary history. In the U.S., it seems that everyone loves the modernists, and most love the Victorians, but it’s much harder to find those devoted to the Fieldings (Sarah and Henry), or to Fanny Burney, or to Daniel Defoe. Why do you think this is? And what do you personally find sustaining or invigorating in your reading of 18th-century fiction?

FS: I think the first reason is that in the 18th century, some significant parts of the technical toolkit we take for granted in fiction hadn’t been invented yet. For a start, they didn’t know how to do the easy flexibility of free indirect style. That’s why they had to resort to the rather anti-intimate omniscience of a book like Tom Jones, or the clunkiness of building narrative from letters, just to bring in multiple viewpoints, and make the understanding of the world plural. And there also hadn’t yet been the descriptive revolution of Romanticism, with the new value it placed on realizing things afresh, sensuously, on the page. Even the really wonderful 18th-century writers tended to handle the whole visual/tactile response to the world through allusion and epithet. They’d call the moon “Diana’s chariot” or an “effulgent luminary” and think, okay, job done.

I feel these stiffnesses and deadnesses too, I must admit; I’m relieved in some ways when 1800 comes around, and color and smoother gear changes creep into fiction. Indeed, I’ve cheated in Golden Hill, in ways it would be giving the game away to go into, and given myself a justification for building most of it in a later style than anyone was using in 1746. But there’s also an extraordinary freedom in the 18th-century novel that I wanted to embrace. It was a protean time for fiction, when no one knew the rules yet, or had started segregating different sorts of pleasures strictly into genres. Fiction wasn’t respectable yet: it was being worked out on the fly by opportunistic journalists, shopkeepers who knew psychology but not Latin and, to a huge extent, women. Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, Fanny Burney: the novel had as many mothers as it did fathers. Ordinary time, ordinary settings, ordinary non-aristocratic people got onto the page for the first time ever. In fact, a profusion of people, in every conceivable social bracket from the gutter to the palace, all talking their heads off, for if it wasn’t yet an era in which literature put pictures in your head much, it was the first great age of voice, rendering character through people’s verbal selves with indiscriminate high-low relish. Literature as curiosity, literature as brilliant proliferating imaginary gossip. Oddity, humor, passion, whole mobs’-worths of individuals delivered through their singular voice-prints. And experiment abounded: within decades of Defoe putting Robinson Crusoe on his island, and kinda-sorta pretending the book was a documentary, you had Sterne playing games with form that it would take centuries for post-modernists to catch up with. I wanted some of that; I wanted the rule-less, innocent omnivorousness that let 18th-century novelists mix up what later ages would classify as incompatible pleasures. I wanted to be able to throw in everything I liked, and then the kitchen sink: a mystery, a political intrigue, a romance, a ball, a duel, a trial, a high-stakes card game, a play-within-a-play, some theology, some sex, some satire, some violence, some beauty. Hell, I wanted to write a serious novel with a rooftop chase in it.

Hell, I wanted to write a serious novel with a rooftop chase in it.

AD: You argue in Unapologetic that Christianity works on the believer, at least in part, through its aesthetic power. Christianity convinces because it’s moving; we believe due to the beauty of the particular story Christianity tells. How do you see your Christian faith influencing the kind of writer you are? Are there particular kinds of stories you’re drawn to tell? Particular characters you’re interested in? Particular ways of thinking about history or style? (The C.S. Lewis-like joy you display in your reading and writing strikes me as characteristically, though certainly not exclusively, Christian.)

FS: Having picked up Christianity as explicit—in fact apologetic—subject matter in Unapologetic, I meant to put it down again in Golden Hill, barring a few vows made to myself that I wouldn’t omit 18th-century churchgoing as historical fiction currently tends to, or soft-pedal the ferocious anti-Catholicism of most colonial culture. I think of myself as a writer who happens to be a Christian, not a “Christian writer.” But an incarnational religion is a narrative one. We have Christ’s presence in story as well as in sacrament.

What I am finding is that the gospel, as a narrative, seems to function as a kind of attractor for me while I am telling stories. Without deliberately alluding to it, or meaning consciously to create any kind of counterpart of it, I seem to keep tracing around it, to keep drawing out partial, wandering, approximate, sometimes parodic or borderline-blasphemous outlines of its shape. Give me a story about a stranger who comes to town and instantly there, nearby, is the possibility that he may be a sin-eater or scapegoat, in some kind of redemptive relation to the ills, individual and shared, of the place he comes to. Give me a comedy of human fallibility, and I start to wonder whether the wisdom of God may be at work in it as well as the foolishness of man; but I also find myself reaching for some of the black paste of tragedy to stir in, because of the Christian story’s insistence on the mortal stakes for which we human idiots play. Conversely, give me a tragedy, and I seem to start tilting it towards laughter, because of the awareness that Easter Sunday follows Good Friday. It’s a tragi-comic religion, Christianity, hopelessly mixed in genre—the only one I know that ends with a death sentence and then a wedding.

 

AD: You wrote in The Child That Books Built about the importance of science fiction, and of Ursula K. Le Guin in particular, to your life as a reader—and, because of this, to the person that you have become. Who are the contemporary writers of SF who you most admire (besides Le Guin herself, who is still going strong)?

FS: And she (Le Guin that is) has had a really good burst of late-period brilliance, with her feminist Virgil novel Lavinia and the YA series Annals of the Western Shore. Apart from her, let’s see: Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Tolstoyan Red Mars trilogy; and the Northern Irish chronicler of the cities of the future, Ian McDonald; and the insanely inventive Adam Roberts from England, who is capable of riffing on Kantian philosophy and Molly Bloom’s soliloquy and John Carpenter monster movies in the same book. And among the newer crop of SF writers, I’m as excited as everyone else by Ann Leckie and N. K. Jemisin.

 

AD: You’ve written beautifully about what storytelling can offer beyond mere pleasure. (Though we shouldn’t be so quick to denigrate aesthetic pleasure as a good in and of itself. As W. H. Auden said, “Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.”) In the introduction to Red Plenty, for example, you talk about how story might play an explanatory function: “But [this book] is not a history either, for it does its explaining in the form of a story.” In Unapologetic, you describe the persuasiveness of Christianity in narrative terms: “supposing the story moves you, moves you enough for you to give it your provisional assent …” What role do you see story playing—pleasure-giving, explanation-offering, etc.—in Golden Hill?

FS: I don’t, at all, want to denigrate pleasure. I’m with Michael Chabon, in his essay in Maps and Legends, on the need to understand it in the widest possible sense, as a quality that’s compatible with virtually the whole range of readerly satisfactions. Tragedy is pleasurable, in this sense; so is being puzzled, being shocked, having your heart broken. The pleasure lies in having experience (virtually any experience) deliberately patterned, when in our lives off the page experience so often sums to forgettable, then forgotten white noise. Even contingency can be made lucid, in story. The story in Golden Hill has a specific memorial function, which I can’t go into without giving essential things away. It turns out, within the world of the book, to be a form of private remembering. But more widely I also want the story to be a way of complicating, or bringing back to more immediate and unpredictable life, the rather deterministic way in which the lead-up to the American Revolution is publicly remembered—the version of history in which everything in colonial experience pushes towards a single, moralized conclusion. Stories, among all the other things they are, are obdurate assertions that things happen which don’t neatly reduce to ideas, don’t neatly align with ideas. (Even good ideas.) They’re a way of being awkward, as experience is awkward. And although the texture of Golden Hill is distinctly fancy, full of embroidery and obvious artifice, I mean that to be offset as you read by an awareness of an awkward degree of reality amid the performing and the luxuriance. It’s supposed to be a performance in which you can tell that the gabbing, apparently poised actors are genuinely at risk. Ideally, a piece of brocade that blood and tears are leaking through.

Published in the August 11, 2017 issue: 
Tags

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

Also by this author
Defending the Humanities

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Books
Collections