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Interview with Rachel Cusk

First published in The White Review No. 14, July 2015.

 

In Rachel Cusk’s eighth novel, OUTLINE, a character named Anne, who has just suffered a violent attack, explains why she considers it important to speak about her experience. ‘If people were silent about the things that had happened to them,’ she asks, ‘was something not being betrayed, even if only the version of themselves that had experienced them?’ Cusk’s work — fiction and non-fiction – is imbued with the same defiant honesty to which her characters aspire. Her non-fiction books – especially AFTERMATH, a raw, elliptical response to her 2009 divorce, and A LIFE’S WORK, a memoir about the bewilderment of first-time motherhood – have attracted vitriol from readers who balk at the candour with which she writes about personal subjects; praise from those who admire her determination to question herself, her refusal to conform to established female roles.

 

Cusk’s career has, on paper, been conventional and glittering. Her 1993 debut, SAVING AGNES, won the Whitbread First Novel Award when Cusk, like her characters, was fresh from university; her third novel, the Wodehouse-esque comedy of manners THE COUNTRY LIFE, earned the Somerset Maugham Award. She was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2003, and her latest novel, OUTLINE, was shortlisted for the Bailey’s and Folio prizes; soon after we meet, its cover could be found adorning posters on the tube. Her work seems to follow the trajectory of a life: four years on from A LIFE’S WORK, Orange Prize-shortlisted ARLINGTON PARK (2005) featured an array of desperate housewives, suburban mothers who contemplate child-murder as they negotiate coffee-mornings and dinner parties. In THE BRADSHAW VARIATIONS (2009), Tonie has had enough, and goes back to work, guiltily leaving her husband at home with their daughter. By OUTLINE, the protagonist is divorced, her children grown: Faye is in Athens to teach a creative writing course, mirroring the details of a British Council tour Cusk herself embarked on in 2012. Far from being self-revelatory, Faye is an unknowable narrator, her name only revealed towards the novel’s end: OUTLINE accumulates the stories she hears from the people she encounters – her neighbour on the plane, her lunch companion, her students – but never tells her own.

 

Many of Cusk’s female characters find themselves listening rather than talking; Cusk, however, having gained a reputation as a chronicler of the personal, is constantly pressed to talk about herself, yet simultaneously chastised for doing so. A review of AFTERMATH criticised the book for not revealing enough juicy details about the divorce. Indignant – and imperceptive – reviews of A LIFE’S WORK accused her of hating her children. Her retaliation is subtle and satirical: she is currently writing a version of Euripides’s MEDEA for the Almeida Theatre. We met in an airy North London gastropub the morning after the general election; amid the chaos – of the country and of her home, beset by builders – she was measured and thoughtful, eloquent in her answers.

Q

The White Review

— Since so much of your work deals with personal experience, and your fiction is rooted in a very recognisable reality, I’d like first to ask you about what you refer to in AFTERMATH as ‘the feminist principle of autobiographical writing’.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— Every time I read a review of my own work – which I don’t very often – it seems to place it in a new genre of memoir writing, along with Karl Ove Knausgaard et al, which in fact isn’t new – people have been doing it forever. But what Knausgaard is doing is distinct from the memoir that documents the extraordinariness of a particular life – it’s the account of ordinary experience, which has arisen over the long painful process of post- modernism. It’s burst out of the apparatus of fiction, which is something that’s in danger of becoming more and more to do with fantasy. The contemporary novel is a reality within a reality, in that people write novels in which their ideas about character and the way things happen come from other manufactured narratives. I don’t think anyone can even remember what authenticity is, now. And in the end, Knausgaard says the same thing: I’m looking in the mirror and there I am. I don’t know whether that is valuable in and of itself. My point about – if not feminism then femininity, womanhood – is that it remains inherently interesting because it remains inherently radical, because women haven’t finished evolving. They’re still a work in progress, and there is always an inherent radicalism, a principle to a woman writing about her own life.

 

Q

The White Review

— Perhaps because women’s lives are lived so much within dominant cultural scripts and preassigned roles, there’s a certain form imposed on a woman’s life which is outside herself.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— The thing that is still alive in letters and in life is lying and misrepresentation and consensus, and saying everything’s great when it’s not, or saying this is what you want when you don’t. That’s still something that happens in lived experience: the female self, the female individual, is at odds in some way with the female group in terms of belonging, truth, ownership.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you see Knausgaard as a feminist writer? A lot of what he writes about the mundanity of everyday life with young children reminds me of your work – the frustration of the mothers in ARLINGTON PARK, locked in a cycle of school runs and coffee mornings, for example.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— I think he’s a nihilist. And it’s just that he’s Norwegian. There’s a kind of Scandiwegian thing that looking after the children if you’re a bloke isn’t such a big deal. That’s his reality, that’s pretty normal where he comes from. And it’s strange for us to read a man writing like that about children because we’re so gendered and Victorian.

 

American female literary critics have always said that men write well about domesticity. Richard Yates, John Updike – those people have written about domestic relationships more confidently than women have. Women think that families are toxic material, that it’s something people shouldn’t use, that to be successful you have to subscribe to male values, which are apparently anti-domestic. When I wrote A LIFE’S WORK I remember very much being deep in the grip of that assumption and thinking I couldn’t possibly write about motherhood. There was one life that I lived; on the other hand, I wondered what I was going to write about.

 

Q

The White Review

— It is the problem Virginia Woolf writes about in A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN: ‘This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.’

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— Yes. If a woman were to write about the Napoleonic Wars I’m sure she would feel absolutely secure and safe, but the terror of writing about women’s experience is absolutely there. I don’t think a man feels brave in writing about domesticity. He’s not conditioned either way, and if that’s what he wants to write about that’s what he’ll write about.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you feel politicised as a feminist writer?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— Yes. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I don’t write historical novels about the First World War.

 

Q

The White Review

— Are you engaged in feminist politics, or activism?


 

A

Rachel Cusk

— No. I suppose OUTLINE was true to myself: I don’t want to exist as an exterior person in the world. I really like writing, and increasingly I’ll become less visible. I was very young when I was first published, and I don’t know why my writing career has involved so much scrutiny. I mean, I am quite self-exposing but not in a look-at-me, attention-seeking way. I just use myself as the material and, given that it hasn’t sold very many books, I want no more of that exposure.

 

Q

The White Review

— The word ‘authenticity’ recurs in your work. Thomas in THE BRADSHAW VARIATIONS and Christine in ARLINGTON PARK both use it when they’re describing the difficulty they have in understanding themselves as individuals within the context of their families. Similarly, in OUTLINE Faye says, ‘I wasn’t sure it was possible, in marriage, to know what you actually were, or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through the other person.’


 

A

Rachel Cusk

— It has to do with how to find one’s selfhood within established forms of living created by other people, particularly when enacting social roles that pre-exist. In my work, authenticity is something that happens at a structural level, a sentence level. I try to write sentences that aren’t the product of sentences written by other people, or indeed cultural perceptions – I try to find a true phrase or observation. In a sense it’s the same quest as trying to uncover why people feel false or unreal. They feel unreal because they are at a great distance from the last time they felt real, which very often is childhood, or youth.

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve used the word ‘authenticity’ of Knausgaard too, when describing the way he portrays narrative’s distance from reality as a pre-eminently personal, rather than artistic, crisis. ‘He shows us, by the route of life, that there is no story, and in so doing he finds, at last, authenticity. For that alone, this deserves to be called perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times.’

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— I wonder whether Knausgaard’s authenticity becomes inauthentic at some point across the six volumes, because he’s created a formula. I’m writing a sequel to OUTLINE, and the most important thing about that sequel will be to break the form that I’m using and take it somewhere else.

 

Q

The White Review

— How would that work?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— I don’t know yet. I always have read a lot of Greek drama, but at the moment I’m up to my neck in it. The thing that struck me, not so much about Euripides but very much about Aeschylus, is how language in these dramas is absolutely an event, it’s absolutely an object, it’s as real and concrete as a table. That relationship between objects and language creates the possibility of violence. The only way that you could ever inspire change in a piece of writing is by citing that root. That’s as far as I’ve got in my head: how would you actually break through what you’re doing and permit it to become something else?

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve said you suffered a ‘creative death’ after AFTERMATH – did OUTLINE stem from a need to find a new form for the novel?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— I suppose it was finding a form that could represent the particular truth of what I had to say at that moment in time. It was amazingly difficult to think of that, because it’s about the opposite of what would ever make you write a novel.

 

Q

The White Review

— What would that be?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— Abundance. The desire to externalise yourself, and put yourself into space. That kind of negative equity – you see it in plenty of modern novels. Camus is the person who is at the back of all of this. There are plenty of novels that take on this economical style in order to signal very plainly that ‘the people here are alienated and this is about bleakness’. That really was not what I wanted to say, I didn’t want bleak. This isn’t necessarily a bleak book, it’s about what life becomes when you move beyond its established or recognisable forms for living, and, I suppose, what it might become.  

 

In OUTLINE I only get as far as the very first thing, a new kind of reality which is only surface. That’s the only thing you can read, the surface – there’s no prior knowledge, there’s no assumption. In the end, that might become migration into completely wild and experimental ways of being, acting in an unconditioned, unfettered way. The sequel’s going to have a lot more sex in it. ‘Authenticity’ – you can use that word in the context of female sexuality.

 

Q

The White Review

— Is the idea of woman as ‘outline’, as the ‘corresponding negative’ to man (as embodied in Faye and Anne) associated with the traditional, hierarchical conception of sexuality, wherein women are perceived as blank slates for men’s fantasies? Anne considers her husband her ‘creator’, and without him she finds herself without ‘a native language of self’.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— The question is, what reality would they enact if they were actors? How is she, Faye, going to create reality rather than just receive it? At some point, because she’s going to live, the question for the next book is whether having lost your belief in reality as a quasi-narrative – we all have that belief, it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning – whether you can ever believe in it again sufficiently to care. So that’s book two.

 

Q

The White Review

— When she’s talking about her travels, Angeliki, the successful novelist in OUTLINE, tells Faye, ‘Being there without my husband caused me to feel, in an entirely new way, what I actually am.’ Is Angeliki’s finding her creativity or authenticity without her husband in any way a reflection of your feelings as a writer?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— Well, no. It’s an interesting moment in female development, which I must have had at some point. To become a writer basically means you’re weird. You can have an extremely detailed grasp of certain aspects of living and then other things are left totally untouched. Writing is innocence, in a way.

 

That’s something that happens to women often as adults, in their careers, that maybe they regain some innocence by having children and being out of the world and then realising that they can become important again. I think that’s what Angeliki is striving for. For me that process is never quite like that, but in female life, particularly if it includes children and marriage, there are so many cycles of loss of worldliness and loss of interaction with the outside followed by cycles of regaining that and feeling powerful. So, feeling weak and feeling powerful: that’s what Angeliki is saying.

 

Q

The White Review

— She says that after being away from them because of illness, she sees her husband and child with greater objectivity.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— Yes, and they don’t need her. Their needing her was what gave her a sense of purpose.

 

Q

The White Review

— Is that sense of objectivity related to Faye’s desire for objectivity in the stories she hears?


 

A

Rachel Cusk

— No, she’s in a far distant place, really. What she’s hearing in Angeliki’s and in all the others’ stories, except for Paniotis who doesn’t have this quality, is people who are still in the story. She is just on the other side of that, saying ‘I don’t believe in it any more.’ Other people can be very close to that line, they can start to see that they’re moving in and out of a constructed narrative, as their story of self and resistance, but she is absolutely out of it, she’s gone over that line and is out of it.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you see Angeliki as counterpoint to some of the wives in your previous novels? I’m thinking of Claudia from THE BRADSHAW VARIATIONS, the archetypal tragic female artist, who is desperate to get to her studio at the bottom of her garden but never makes it – it’s implied that her children are her only creative outlet, which is something Angeliki, who is also both a mother and an artist, transcends.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— She’s the next evolution of the Claudia person. She is the expressive woman, whose expression nonetheless has to take very, very secure and recognisable forms, and has to be recognised.

 

Q

The White Review

— She’s ‘the famous feminist writer’.


 

A

Rachel Cusk

— This is where we’re at with womanhood; there has to be a tangible success or a tangible bit of status. That reality has to be very stable. One of the things I have noticed in my many years of being a writer and hanging around a bit in the world of writers, is how a lot of male writers set great store by their public successes. That was all taken extremely seriously, whereas I totally don’t ever care. It’s sort of self-importance I suppose – and I’m not saying male writers are self-important, it’s just that I remember noticing that those people cared more, and maybe it’s that they cared more about themselves than I do. Those things meant more to them, those forms of public recognition or reality. Women have caught up with that, and that’s what I’m describing in Angeliki, the person who can say, ‘I’m becoming this and I can see what I am because it’s reflected. If I didn’t have those things I don’t know who I would be.’

 

Q

The White Review

— Is that ‘authentic’?


 

A

Rachel Cusk

— No, not at all. That’s the whole point about the Angeliki story. And at the end Faye and Paniotis have a conversation in which Faye says, well I’ve met her before and she didn’t even remember, and Paniotis says that wasn’t her, that was a different person, this Angeliki has never met you.

 

Q

The White Review

— So her struggle is to combine her public and private selves? It’s a struggle which so many of your characters embody, but the ones who get furthest in subverting it – like Tonie, and you yourself as described in AFTERMATH – feel uncomfortable, ‘unsexed’, like ‘hermaphrodites’, or the ‘self-hating transvestite’. Tonie doesn’t want to define herself through her husband; she wants ‘her own conflict of female and male, her own synthesis’. There’s this idea that women have to take on traditionally male values to succeed, but does this come at the cost of their identity as women?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— I refuse to subscribe to those values, even though my economic, practical life has been very male: I’ve never been financially supported by anyone, I’ve always paid for my own family and been the main breadwinner, so it’s a very ‘male’ set of things that I’m doing.

 

Q

The White Review

— But women who do ‘male’ things are still expected to reconcile this with some notion of traditional femininity.


 

A

Rachel Cusk

— Yes. I don’t think the woman writer is any different from the woman anything, in that the apparent struggle for women is to live equality in their private lives, and I’d say the vast majority fail to do that because it is so hard to do, and then what happens is that you feel trapped and dependent. If I translate that into a world of writing, I’ve always imagined that if I didn’t have to worry about bills and a mortgage and children’s shoes, strangely, I would write poetry. The novel is such a workhorse, it’s so absolutely, intimately connected to how we order our life, and form. So I imagine that in that life of freedom from care I would write poetry.

 

Q

The White Review

— In ARLINGTON PARK the women conform in public, as they feel they have to, and play the role of wife and mother, but in private each of them is in turmoil.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— That’s what I mean about female identity being radical, that dissonance between interior life and exterior appearance. That is still interesting, although it’s becoming slightly less interesting, in that sometimes I see the world of mothers at the school gate, and I think, is there any way out of this other than aspiration, other than becoming more confident and more consumerist and looking better and having nicer things at the school gate?

 

Q

The White Review

OUTLINE could be read as an annihilation of that. We don’t know what Faye looks like, what she has.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— No. Those sentences would not be written – it’s a very interesting experience having thought about this form, and it really taught me how to write it. Simply, there were a lot of things that just could not be expressed in that. What is a woman without the description of those things? And I suppose for most people that makes it a very, very difficult book to read. There’s none of that titillation.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your writing is very much located in place – suburbia, the country, Athens – even houses are evoked with personality. Is this interest in where your characters live, and contextualising their lives within their surroundings, to do with ideas of authenticity and self-definition?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— My upbringing was relatively itinerant. I grew up in America, moved here and was sent to boarding school, and my parents moved house incessantly. They were also great investors in the status of houses and grandeur. We were never sure what it was that made us, us. Was it us, or was it this thing? So those issues loomed large in my life. It would be nice to not think that way.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your books often feature itinerant characters – lodgers, au pairs, people coming into the main characters’ lives from outside.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— It tends to triangulate. You have a ball in a game of tennis, it allows dynamism in established relationships, and that perspective is one that I’m always in quasi-identification with anyway, the person who doesn’t belong in the house, or doesn’t belong in the relationship. That feels like me. When I was learning how to write, I realised that if I introduced that person, that would move and things would happen and suddenly it was all OK, and it was that perspective that liberated things and made them not flat any more.

 

Q

The White Review

— In the final chapter of AFTERMATH you write about your own divorce from the perspective of your lodger.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— That was a truly bleak bit of counterpoint, that was me using that method to shoot myself in the head, I guess.

 

Q

The White Review

— Greek tragedy pervades a lot of your writing: the stories of Clytemnestra and Antigone are told in AFTERMATH, for example. Where does this interest come from?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— I started reading those things in my early thirties. THE ODYSSEY was the first Greek thing I read, and I found this literature that was not founded in Judeo-Christian reality so amazing. I had an extremely conservative upbringing and it was very, very hard for me to find any unconventionality in myself – well, not in myself, but to relate internal chaos to anything that might actually manifest itself as some way of living. Growing up I was internally chaotic and here was this absolutely rigid outside world that I couldn’t translate myself into, and fell foul of, and was judged by, and disapproved of in. The first real liberation came with reading Freud and becoming interested in psychoanalytical writing. Freud is such a great critic, and his commentaries brought me to Greek literature. And that was a whole new way of understanding living.

 

Q

The White Review

— Particularly a new way of understanding female selfhood, through Clytemnestra, Medea, Antigone?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— I suppose it’s the idea of those totally emotionally violent people, the scheme of personality that could be dramatised by them. That’s Freud’s classic concept of it.

 

Q

The White Review

— Does this heightened emotional violence have something to do with the form of Greek drama? By convention, violent action had to take place offstage, which left language as the only means of conveying horror.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— It’s something that the novel should take as law, that things have to happen offstage. It’s been interesting writing MEDEA around that idea of telling, because the novel has gone so far down the road of showing, and the showing is so inauthentic. Very often it becomes telling and showing, which is fantasy. So the thing that I’ve wrestled with in MEDEA is the violence, although it isn’t shown. To me, that has to exist in a world of equivalence. Because otherwise it’s a play about a really, really rare person, someone who kills their children. It’s a curiosity, and that can’t be right.

 

Q

The White Review

— This idea of things happening offstage seems relevant to OUTLINE, where characters speak rather than act and the reader is left to piece together the narrator’s own situation very gradually, and particularly to AFTERMATH, where the story of the divorce itself, which spurs the book, is never told. How do you decide how confessional to be, as an autobiographical writer?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— It’s a real limitation, because this is such new terrain, and there are issues about who owns reality, who owns the story, what are you allowed to say about John over there, and I still don’t know the answer to that. I’ve been reading Emmanuel Carrère’s LIMONOV and it’s good, and I can’t bear the idea of googling things, so I don’t really know how much of what he’s talking about is fact. So maybe you just have to be absolutely unrepentant, as Knausgaard is. There’s a line in LIMONOV about Limonov becoming a writer, and Carrère says something like, ‘there are only two ways to be a memoirist.’ I can’t remember what the first one was, but the other was, ‘if you mention somebody, give their name and address’. I really like that idea.

 

Q

The White Review

— Perhaps it’s a question of objectivity, which in some ways the form of OUTLINE is striving for. Faye edits and corrects the stories she hears, critiquing the lack of objectivity in the storytellers she meets – she doesn’t believe in the character of her neighbour’s second wife, for example. Is that observational role, interpreting people’s lives like a novel, an accurate representation of the process of a realist writer?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— Yes, well, the process of writing. That’s how she understands and can tell whether things are true or not, whether they take a convincing form, and her model for that form is all to do with writing. And the students’ stories, which they speak – she elicits from them things that are recognisably true.

 

Q

The White Review

— One student sees ‘the tendency to fictionalise our own experiences as positively dangerous’. Another, Cassandra, complains that she’s not learning to write because she’s not using her imagination. The clear inference is that Faye has taught them how to tell the truth, and that’s what people need from writing. Is Faye’s creative writing tuition anything like the way you teach creative writing?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— Probably!

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you enjoy teaching?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— I have enjoyed it very much, but I’m on long leave from that, I want to do my own work now. I did eight years or so of teaching. In the end so many writers find the same thing, that they really enjoy teaching but not the institution – inevitably, the whole reason you became a writer is that you didn’t want to participate in the bureaucratic style of work. Form-filling has to happen, I guess. That’s the inbuilt obsolescence of teaching creative writing, which in itself is not a very creative thing to do.

 

Q

The White Review

— Going back to Freud, there are a lot of dreams in your books.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— Yeah, although it’s so boring when people tell you about their dreams, I assume it’s boring when people write about their dreams.

 

Q

The White Review

— Melete’s dream in OUTLINE is very Freudian. These women are trying to get into the opera, but their entrance is blocked by a growing pile of sanitary towels. It’s the perfect image for the stunting of female creativity.

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— That’s a good dream. And Juliet and the cockroach coming out of her head is another good one. No, I mean, I don’t dream much, but I have had extremely violent dreams.

 

Q

The White Review

— Were those your own dreams?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— The cockroach one definitely was. I can’t remember the other one.

 

Q

The White Review

— In your collection THE LUCKY ONES, Serena says: ‘I’m angry about men, marriage, children, I don’t know, everything.’ Do you write from a position of anger? Is emotion an authentic position to write from?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— My position changes, has changed an awful lot, and I suppose I see myself encroaching on a goal, and anger might have been one stage that I’ve passed through to try and get there. The things that I would be angry about now would be very different from those things.

 

Q

The White Review

— What would those be?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— I’m not sure I can put it into words. I suppose violence done by people blindly enacting themselves. I object to untransfigured selfhood, so using one’s self as your battering ram, or anything, caring, I suppose, on that basis, and pursuing your interests on that basis. I’ve just become very sensitive to that, and more appreciative of self-sacrifice and smallness and humility. I suppose it’s having been really bullied and bashed over the head. That makes me angry.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your writing is so observational, and THE COUNTRY LIFE, in particular, so perfectly captures the nuances of social awkwardness. Do you keep a journal of things you overhear? How do you write?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— Well, I think. I think for a very, very, very, very long time, and then I look around at reality and then I try and fit those two things together. I write notes. Once I’ve got an idea for something I’ll usually write a set of notes in that moment because otherwise I’ll forget, but that’s not content, that’s very much form. I guess the idea of amassing highlights from things I heard on the bus is something I don’t go in for, because that’s not what happens when you leave your house. Sometimes you sit on the bus and nobody says anything interesting and sometimes they do, so I wouldn’t want to write a book in which everything’s pitched that high. The content comes to me while I’m writing, I just take what’s available and chuck it in.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you go through a lot of drafts?

 

A

Rachel Cusk

— No. I don’t change anything. Well, I can think about it, often I do think about it for two or three years. When I’m ready to write it, I’ve written it, I know everything about it. It’s a horrible process: most of the time I’m thinking ‘what am I meant to be doing?’ And then for six weeks I’m writing 5,000 words a day.

 

Q

The White Review

— Have you already thought about the third volume in the OUTLINE trilogy?
A

Rachel Cusk

— It’s about the discovery of peace.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is Editor of The White Review. Her writing has appeared in the London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman and the Financial Times, among other places. Her book Square Haunting will be published by Faber in 2020.



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