Thursday, July 05, 2007
Debut novel review and an author interview
As a rule I'm not a lover of novels that experiment with fonts and
grammar as a means of telling a story, perhaps because I'm a product of a rigorous Catholic school education where Latin, ancient Greek and the rules of English grammar are so inculcated (in my day with the aid of a leather strap) that one dares not stray or experiment even in adulthood. I'm also deeply suspicious of such experimentation because, more often than not, they're lazy gimmicks used in an attempt to gloss over flaws in the plot as opposed to flaws in the protagonist's character. But every now and then a work comes into my hands that does break all the rules magnificently and, as a result, rises above the fray of novels that do experiment so. Without question In Search of Adam by British debut author Caroline Smailes is one such novel.
(For the sake of full disclosure, I wish to state at this juncture that her publisher, The Friday Project, is the same publisher who will publish both A Son called Gabriel and my second novel, Unusual Steps.)
Set mainly in a gritty, working-class council housing estate (project in the US) in Newcastle, a coal producing city in the North of England, the child protagonist, Jude Williams, happens upon her mother who has just committed suicide and left a cryptic note bearing the words "Jude, I have gone in search of adam. I love you baby." What begins from that instant onward is the end of innocence for Jude and the commencement of a search for her mother and the meaning of life amid harsh circumstances.
A quiet, courageous novel, the author in simple direct prose--occasionally seasoned with Newcastle dialect in order to present and anchor the setting--unflinchingly and with admirable skill tackles huge universal themes including sexual abuse, parental dysfunction, bulimia (as Jude grows older) and the loneliness of childhood. In less accomplished hands, these themes would result merely in the reader journeying through the terrain of a dark novel landscaped only by ominous hillocks of pain and ponds of sadness; in Smailes hands however, while pain and sadness is certainly present, we are engulfed in the swirling current of the story so abruptly and powerfully that within twenty pages we already love and feel so protective of the protagonist that we'll follow her anywhere--a feat made all the more remarkable in that the protagonist does not speak a great deal throughout the work and yet we get to know her as intimately as we would a family member.
Moreover, Smailes does not resort to the trick of presenting us with a perfectly formed, unblemished and blameless protagonist to admire and cherish. Jude has flaws that exacerbate her situation, flaws that include silence, a terrible failure to tell her secrets at critical moments--understandable when she is a child but perhaps less so as she matures--and promiscuity in late adolescence. It is these flaws that are the essential keys to our growing understanding and sympathy.
One aspect of the novel that struck me particularly was Jude's observations during a street party to celebrate the wedding of Charles and Diana and the author's juxtaposition of dualing scenes of extreme happiness and danger. To many Brits, this is a moment of time that's permanently frozen within their cores and they remember exactly where they were on that day in exactly the same way that Kennedy's assassination is frozen in the American psyche. A very interesting interplay in the novel arises in the "Thoughts" section of the book. As the author begins to answer questions posed by an unknown interviewer, Jude intrudes and begins to speak her mind much more forthrightly than she has done throughout the story, even to the point of teasing the author and it's endearing. My only quibble, though it is a minor quibble, is that the fate of the molester during her childhood is left unresolved and I would have liked some kind of confrontation by Jude; but then I imagine the author is mirroring reality where the vast majority of these situations remain unresolved.
Kudos to Caroline Smailes for writing such an accomplished and insightful debut novel. It deserves a worldwide audience and I hope it gets it.
Caroline, thanks for stopping by to talk about your novel. I should have bought a couple of bottles of Newcastle brown ale that's available here in the US as a treat to myself.
CS: Thank you so much for inviting me.
DMN: I read on your blog that you felt compelled to write this novel,which reads so true-to-life it's as if it is nonfiction. What prompted you to write In Search of Adam and desire its publication?
CS: I started writing /In Search of Adam/ after having a miscarriage.The writing gave me an outlet to express the emotions that I was experiencing. I didn’t realise at that time that the story would continue to unfold. That initial part is still within the novel. I didn’t actually get around to seeking publication. I finished the final draft in August 2006, and then I launched my website and blog. I was beginning to write a list of possible agents to send the manuscript to, I’d managed to pull together a synopsis and a cover letter. Then, within 3 weeks of starting blogging, Clare Christian (an aside: Clare Christian is MD of The Friday Project and recipient of the 2007 UK Young Publisher of the Year Nibble) emailed me and requested the manuscript.
DMN: Who is Jude Williams and why did you decide to set your story in a council housing estate (project in the US)?
CS: Jude Williams is a little girl who lived and grew inside of my head. She lived inside of me for the 18 months that it took to write/ In Search of Adam/. I still have days when I am writing and I hear her voice, so I guess that Jude is now part of me. The setting of the story is very familiar to me. I grew up in a similar estate on the North East coast of England. I wanted a strong sense of place to emerge through the surroundings, place names and dialect, and so the setting emerged as Jude grew as a character.
DMN: How did you research the book?
CS: Unfortunately, In Search of Adam was not difficult to research. My research stemmed from extensive reading. We exist within a society where abuse is common place and is now documented within books and online. The accepted evidence of abuse, neglect, self harm and eating disorders are easily accessible for those who wish to look. I also referred to my own diaries as part of my research and I have acknowledged that some of the events within /In Search of Adam/ stem from personal experience.The researching was not difficult, but the findings often left me devastated.
DMN: How long did the writing process take?
CS: It took me 18 months from start to finish. I enrolled on an MA in Creative writing 5 months after my miscarriage and this ensured that /In Search of Adam/ became a priority in my life. Until I enrolled, I was juggling writing with motherhood and work. By studying, I was forced to meet deadlines and became less precious about my work. I am sure that this hurried the writing process along.
DMN: You have taken on some very large themes--sexual abuse, family dysfunction, abandonment, mental illness--in your novel and successfully treated them as if you have been writing for a long time and been much published. Were you nervous as to how your book would be received upon
CS: Thank you for your kind words. I have to admit that prior to publication. I was terrified. I had sleepless nights and was full of panic. I think people were expecting me to be ecstatic that I had been published, but inside I was terrified of reaction. Receiving praise from professionals, from others who understood Jude’s very core and from general readers has touched me beyond words. I set out to present an authentic journey of a young girl growing within an abusive and neglectful environment. I realised early on that I had a duty to present
as authentic a portrayal as possible and some of the reactions that I have had have overwhelmed me. I never expected to receive as much support as I have.
DMN: I am intrigued by the way you experimented with format and fonts in the book? How did you come to use this in your first novel?
CS: I teach linguistics and I have always been intrigued by the representation of spoken language. The different fonts were used to
indicate altered voice and mood. The first person child’s voice of Jude Williams had restrictions. I could only describe her world through her eyes and with her sounds, so the limitations of her language were expressed through altered fonts and variation in grammatical constructions. I wanted to give the words life and breath on the page. I wanted the words to speak and have a unique voice depending on Jude’s mood. I wanted the words to be given a creative expression beyond the surface meaning, so I experimented with format and fonts to add a depth that could not be obtained through standard presentation.
DMN: I see you are busy with your next novel. Can you tell us a little about that?
CS: During the countdown to publication of /In Search of Adam /a writer told me to focus on my next book. He said that it would keep me grounded. Those wise words stayed with me and guided me. I am currently on the second draft of /Black Boxes/. The story unravels through two very dissimilar voices and stories, as the reader is presented with the evidence that is left after a breakdown in communication. The story is in two parts and the clues that are held within two black boxes are presented after a mother and daughter’s relationship has crashed. I hope to have completed the final draft by the end of the summer.
DMN: Your novel is not yet published in the US. How can interested readers acquire a copy?
CS: Unfortunately, the rights to/ In Search of Adam/ haven’t been sold into the US yet, but the novel can be found in a number of ways. There is of course Amazon, or there are limited edition copies available direct from my publisher The Friday Project, or there are a series of travelling /In Search of Adam/ copies journeying around the world. One blogger has started a forum where readers cover postage costs and In /Search of Adam/ is travelling. I know that one copy is currently in Australia. All details can be found on the sidebar of my blog.
Caroline, I wish you much success with In Search of Adam and your next work.