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Interview with Sarah Moss

Before I met Sarah Moss, in a tiny, cheerful café in the centre of Coventry, I visited the city’s cathedral. I wanted to see it because Adam, the narrator of Moss’s 2016 novel The Tidal Zone, is working on an audio guide to the building. The book’s main narrative is interspersed with chapters describing the bombing of Coventry during World War II, and the architect Basil Spence’s plans to build a modern cathedral from the ruins of its 700-year-old incarnation. Adam is also engaged in an act of reconstructive imagination. His teenage daughter collapsed at school, her heart stopped. She survived, but nobody knows why the collapse happened, or whether it will happen again. How does he move forward, honestly confronting what has happened and what may yet happen, but not allowing his family’s lives to be dictated by this uncertainty?

 

How we negotiate the past and imagine the future – personal, social, national – is an overriding concern of Moss’s six novels. A sleep-deprived academic struggles to write a book on the history of childhood while raising her own two young children (Night Waking). A Victorian woman grapples with the legacy of her mother’s psychological and physical abuse as she trains to be one of the country’s first female doctors (Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children). In The Tidal Zone, Adam is a part-time academic married to a GP, and his future must take into account not only his new awareness of his daughter’s vulnerability, but also the years of austerity that have reshaped higher education and the NHS.

 

Born in 1975, Moss grew up in Manchester and earned a PhD at the University of Oxford. Her doctoral research examined the influence of polar exploration on the Romantic imagination; her first novel, Cold Earth (2009), followed a group of students on an archaeological dig in Greenland. Recognition for Moss’s work has built steadily, with Bodies of Light, Signs for Lost Children and The Tidal Zone shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize in 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively, testament as much to her deep engagement with science and medicine as to the regularity with which she publishes. Her most recent book, Ghost Wall, won wide acclaim as a tense and insightful Brexit novel, albeit one set twenty-five years before the 2016 referendum. The novel’s teenage narrator, Silvie, along with her parents and a group of university archaeologists, is spending part of the summer attempting to live as the Ancient Britons did. Silvie’s father, a bus driver, is obsessed with Pre-Roman Britain, and over the course of the novel’s not-quite-150 pages we see that this obsession is rooted in the fantasy of a time and place free from foreigners, where women are controlled by men.

 

Moss is now a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. Her teaching, like her fiction and Names from the Sea (2012), a memoir recounting the year Moss spent with her family in Iceland, is bound up with questions of place. Place, not landscape, she corrected me at one point: expanding what counts as interesting territory, she pointed out, is as politically important as expanding our understanding of the past, and that means carparks as well as mountains, cathedrals and shops as well as oceans and meadows. We met in early June 2019, the week after European elections in which the Brexit Party won almost a third of the vote. Pragmatically and determinedly ungloomy despite these results, Moss was committed to rejecting all forms of nostalgia and to believing in a better future.

 

Q

The White Review

The relationship between parents and children is at the centre of almost all your work. What is it about that relationship that you find so interesting or fruitful?

 

A

Sarah Moss

Well, it’s the one thing absolutely everybody has in common: we all have parents. After Night Waking came out, it was to some extent reviewed as a kind of mummy book, as if parenthood were some minority interest. The idea that raising the next generation, or having parents or having kids, is something that only a few people do is a very strange one. My career as a novelist has overlapped almost exactly with my kids’ lives. I was writing my first novel when I was on maternity leave with my first child, so those arcs, of being a novelist and being a parent, have been identical for me. When I wrote Night Waking, there was very little representation of parenthood in contemporary fiction. A lot about family life from the child’s point of view, but very little from the parent’s. That’s changed over the last five years, but at the time it seemed an odd gap in the story.

 

Q

The White Review

And then in your next two novels Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, both loose sequels to Night Waking], you did switch to writing from the child’s perspective.

 

A

Sarah Moss

Yes. Worrying about what parents do to children and what children do to parents. Because it’s a narrative idea, isn’t it? The whole post-Freudian idea of parenthood is essentially narrative, that your ancestors are telling their stories through your life.

 

Q

The White Review

Why did you decide to make the narrator of The Tidal Zone, who’s more or less a stay-at-home parent, a father rather than a mother?

 

A

Sarah Moss

I was interested in masculinity. In some ways masculinity is much less interrogated than femininity at the moment, and because I’m raising sons, I think about that quite a lot. And I don’t think feminism and raising sons are in tension or incompatible in any way, but that project makes me much more alert to the damage that patriarchy and ideas of masculinity do to men. So The Tidal Zone was partly an experiment with masculinity and patriarchy. What does the good man look like? Can you be a good man and not work? What happens to your masculinity if you take on conventionally feminine kinds of work? All those questions were interesting to me.

 

Q

The White Review

Do you think that people responded differently to the novel because the narrator was male?

 

A

Sarah Moss

Well, it’s interesting that nobody assumes it’s autobiographical, as if the experiences of maternity and paternity are so different that you couldn’t possibly put your own experiences into a different set of clothes.

 

Q

The White Review

You’ve spoken elsewhere about the idea for the novel coming to you when, on the same day, a children’s hospital in Syria was bombed and a boy at your son’s school collapsed on the football field. Did you know instantly that the narrator of the novel would be the parent of the child who had collapsed?

 

A

Sarah Moss

I started with Coventry Cathedral, actually. And then yes, with that moment, standing in the kitchen listening to the news, and then later hearing about the boy collapsing on the football field, and then those things came together, but it was part of a much bigger project of thinking about trauma and rebuilding, and that question: What is art for in the face of violence? To which I don’t have an answer, but Basil Spence the architect of Coventry Cathedral] has an answer.

 

Q

The White Review

I looked round the cathedral before I came to meet you, and it was amazing to see how central those questions are in the building.

 

A

Sarah Moss

It’s a building about war.

 

Q

The White Review

Yes. And seems to have continued to be about wars, ongoing wars, rather than specifically a memorial to World War II. Maybe that connects to a question I had about the way that several of your novels take place in multiple time periods. At what stage does that doubleness or multiplicity come in? It sounds like with The Tidal Zone it was there from the beginning.

 

A

Sarah Moss

It’s always there from the beginning. And even when it’s not so explicit, with Ghost Wall, say, where that past is almost silenced, just filtering through, it’s still my starting point, always.

 

Q

The White Review

You’re an academic by training, and you studied Romantic literature, which is not something you’ve written about, or a time in which you’ve set your novels. Is that deliberate?

 

A

Sarah Moss

No. Maybe it’s partly that those Romantic ideas are so deep in the way I think about writing and place, and often in the way that I question ideas about writing and place. I think Romanticism is often very badly misused in the service of nostalgia and nationalism. The classic sublime is very exclusive in ways that I don’t like, and we inherit it in ways I don’t like. But those conversations about the relationship with land and place and writing… I almost don’t need to address them directly. I address them directly in my teaching, but in my writing they can just bubble along underneath.

 

Q

The White Review

In Ghost Wall, there are tremendous problems with the way that the narrator’s father and the archaeology professor think about the land, and the way they go about doing experiential archaeology, but the novel also suggests that there are good things about being deeply connected to the land, as the teenage narrator clearly is. I wondered whether you have a positive vision of what it could be to feel you belong to a place, and whether it could be something that doesn’t necessitate excluding other people.
A

Sarah Moss

I hope so. It’s probably one of my long-term projects, as a teacher and as a writer, to find a way… I think of it as belonging without ownership. A very democratic idea of belonging that keeps it open for different kinds of connection and is not rooted in some property-based or genetic claim on the land. But that’s always going to be a practice rather than an achievement, for whoever is doing it. That’s very much a part of how I teach writing about nature and place: the writing is the practice of belonging. And often knowing about a place is the practice of belonging as well. I’ve moved around a lot, mostly within the UK, so when people ask where I’m from, I can say Britain, but beyond that I don’t really have an answer, and depending on the motives of the people asking, even saying Britain will collapse under interrogation, because on my father’s side there’s a classic European Jewish diaspora story. I fit in perfectly well in Britain, but that idea of a kind of ancestral connection to place – when I’m teaching, we end up talking about ‘from-ness’ – is not one that I know. There are lots of places I like very much and feel connected to, but I think none where people who feel that other kind of connection would recognise my right to be there or to have feelings about the place.
 

 

This is an extract from the full interview, published in issue 27. 


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Hannah Rosefield is a contributing editor to The White Review and a PhD candidate in English at Harvard University, where she is writing a thesis on Victorian stepmothers. Her work has appeared in The New Statesman, The Point, The New Republic and The New Yorker online.

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