READ CLOSE: Sorrow and Bliss is Martha’s story. Tell us how you came to write the book – how you settled on the narrative voice; the structure and the importance of leaving gaps in her experience for the reader; the decisions you made and how the book changed during the writing.
MEG MASON: Sorrow and Bliss was never meant to be anything other than a Word document, or seen by anyone except me. Because I started it a month or so after quitting fiction forever, at the end of 2018, having spent all year labouring over a book that was horrible to begin with and even worse by the time I’d finished with it. So much time and emotional energy had been wasted producing 85,000 unusable words, I couldn’t imagine ever trying again.
But then. Authors are sometimes asked what ‘makes’ someone a writer, whether its innate ability or something that can be taught or the product of practise and discipline. I just think a writer is someone who can’t help themselves. No matter how hard the work is, the permanent, overhanging threat of it not turning out or ever being published or finding readers if it is, you just have to. You can’t not if you want to feel like yourself and know what you think.
So even though I truly thought my writing career was over, I was compelled back to my desk one day, wanting to put down not even a scene really, just an image that had dropped into my head, of a couple at a wedding going over to chat to a woman who was by herself and having a terrible time with a canape.
For some reason the 600 words or so that I wrote that day, which became the first scene of the book, were a bit flood-gates-y and the rest it just came roaring out. I just had to sit there and type.
The only contributing thing I can identify is my deciding that Martha was just going to say what happened. I wasn’t going to try and make every single sentence clever and novelly, and rammed with verbs and description as I had – so effortfully and disastrously – in the earlier book.
If a character sits down, Martha says ‘he sat down.’ Not ‘he collapsed onto the well-worn, velvet sofa, riven with anxiety, as a sharp wind forced its way through the peeling window frames like ice cold fingers’. If there’s anxiety and a breeze, she’d just say that too or – as to the gaps in the narrative – we just have to figure it out from other things says or doesn’t. That’s why the tone turned out the way it did, sort of flat and prosaic but more the way we really talk, and I think what makes the book a little bit different, and definitely different to anything I’ve ever written before.
Your second novel is concerned with motherhood, and whether Martha could be a good mother, ideas which have also driven your memoir Say It Again In A Nice Voice and your first novel, You Be Mother. Could you let us know a little of your thoughts concerning writing about motherhood and children and why it’s important to you?
I would say, rather than being something I set out to do, my concentration on motherhood was a product of my age and the stage of life I was in when I started writing – 32, with two little children. It’s remained one because all of life is in it – mother and child relationships and particularly, for me, mother and daughter ones. Every emotion and complication and experience is there, so I’m sure there will be a mother and daughter, of some age, in every book I ever write.
If Sorrow and Bliss were to be a film, who would you like to cast to play Martha, Patrick, Jonathan, Ingrid, et al?
Possibly you’d assume the opposite of a writer but I have no visual imagination when it comes to characters and what they look like. I can do you a lovely, detailed living room or a rainy street but the reason there’s barely any physical description in Sorrow and Bliss is because I have no idea how any of them look. Which makes it hard for me to cast them. But if the author is allowed to hover on the corner of a set, I would rewrite the entire thing just so there were parts for Sharon Horgan, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.
Your writing has been compared to Phoebe Bridge-Waller’s Fleabag and Sally Rooney. What writers, films, artists or musicians do you think have had an impact on your writing?
I’ve been amazed by comparisons to both of those writers, and so grateful. But they’re both such millennial voices and I’m squarely Gen X so its writers of my generation, or earlier ones, who have taught me what to do and how, and impacted me most as a reader. Like Rachel Cusk, who writes in such a straight, sparing way that you’re always caught out by the depth and darkness of the material. Hilary Mantel, for the way she combines such detail with such economy. Janet Frame, for beauty and experiment. But most of all, Nancy Mitford for that incredible blending of humour and pathos and – I think – her inventing a kind of fiction that is literary but funny and accessible at the same time.
I Iike to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Sorrow and Bliss to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?
Gosh, I love that idea. I remember when I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation when it first came out, thinking afterwards – or possibly within the first few pages – oh, here it is, the perfect novel! Desperately funny and sad and beautiful, such amazing observation and – incredibly – the whole story of a marriage told in one hundred and something pages. That and Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a sort of boy version of the same, are the two novels I would choose as companions for Sorrow and Bliss if I could.
What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?
I’m not sure why, since I generally tend towards fiction, but I’ve been on a history bender since the beginning of summer and chain-read all of Simon Jenkins’ Short Histories, and Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette and The Six Wives of Henry Eighth. They’re such amazing works for scholarship but they read like novels so there’s no effort involved. But definitely inspiration, for me, in the fact that Fraser had her fifth child in the middle of writing Mary Queen of Scots, 640 pages long, and she didn’t give up or drop dead of exhaustion.
Next, and the second they’re released, in February and May this year, I will be reading Max Porter’s The Death of Francis Bacon and Rachel Cusk’s Second Place.