You’re all cordially invited to join in the fun of the Massive Autumn Book Launch Event (#MABLE) organised by my publisher, Fantastic Books Publishing. The books in the event are hugely discounted, so it’s a great opportunity to try some new and exciting fiction. It began on 17th September and runs to 31st October. And you can sign up to join in the fun here.
I’ve been posting interviews with the authors here during the event. This last one is with Meghan Purvis:
Meghan Purvis received an MA and PhD from the University of East Anglia, and an MFA from North Carolina State University. Her translation of Beowulf was published in 2013 and won the 2011 Times Stephen Spender Prize for literary translation. Her poetry has appeared, among other places, in Magma, The Rialto, and The Interpreter’s House; her first novel, The Wages of Dying, was published in 2021. She lives in London.
- Did some specific event trigger the creation of The Wages of Dying or, alternatively, was this a project you’d been considering for some time?
I first started writing what would become The Wages of Dying when I was supposed to be writing my PhD dissertation. I always tell people that when you’re working on your thesis you will have the cleanest house you will ever have, you will cook the fanciest meals you will ever eat, and you will discover a passion for the most esoteric of hobbies, because you would rather do literally ANYTHING than actually finish your dissertation.
That said, there is plenty in my background that fed into it: I’ve always loved spooky stories, and stories that play a little with genre tropes—I read Peter Straub’s Ghost Story when I was about twelve (probably well before I was able to really understand it!). I also really enjoy stories set in the past. I wish that was rooted in something higher-brow than the 1992 cinematic flop Newsies, but I have to acknowledge my influences…Anyway, so while the triggering event for starting the story was procrastination, the threads that wove the story itself are ones that have been there for a while.
- Most works of fiction have themes either at their heart or subtly roving beneath the surface for the more analytical reader; what were your themes here, and why do they matter to you?
Oh, I find this question terrifying, as I feel I’ll give an answer and years from now someone will write an essay saying “actually, this novel is clearly based in Purvis’s phobia of boiled eggs,” I’ll hear their reasoning, and think Oh god, they’re right, they know me better than I know myself. That said! I think there are a couple of themes, or at least interests, that the story circles around. One that I didn’t realise I was writing about until around halfway through the first draft was the legacy of things we’re ashamed of. Ruby, my protagonist, is ashamed of a few different aspects of her background, some more immediately visible than others. A large part of this novel is set in New Orleans and the American south, where my family goes back to on both sides, and research for the novel couldn’t help but bring up complicated feelings about who my ancestors were and what they may have done. (To be blunt, I’m descended from white southerners who fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War; their behaviour and beliefs were, and are, deeply shameful.) I’m proud of some of my relatives and embarrassed by others, but all of them played their part in making me who I am, and I think part of this story is me grappling with how I feel about that.
The other theme that I see across pretty much everything I write is an interest in female rage, and female violence: how women move through a world that is often pretty literally out to get them. We’re socialised to be meek and nice (I am, inevitably, neither), but then spend our lives in a world where might makes right. How do different people respond to that? And are they better or worse for the choices they make? I started to say I don’t have any answers here, but I actually think I do—I just have a different answer each time I ask myself!
- Is The Wages of Dying your first created book or do you have others both published and/or awaiting publication?
It’s not, my translation of Beowulf came out with Penned in the Margins Press in 2013. (It was the creative portion of my aforementioned thesis!) My translation splits the narrative into a collection-length grouping of poems, exploding the voices and viewpoints of the original text.
- When did you start writing and what prompted you to choose words as your creative medium?
My mother always tells a story about her first parent-teacher conference at my elementary school where my second-grade teacher, Mr. Farley, told her that I was using parenthetical phrasing at age seven and was destined to be a writer. I think that anecdote is probably more indicative of my impulse to talk over myself, but I’ll accept the compliment. At any rate, I started writing stories as soon as I was able to write—there’s also a handmade book from decades ago that’s an illustrated guide to being a mouse—so it felt pretty inevitable. As far as why words, I’m a middling piano player and an abysmal cartoonist, so I think words were my only shot. It also doesn’t hurt that I come from a family of extremely sarcastic lawyers; words were very much my currency growing up, and I suppose still are.
- To what extent does genre guide your treatment of story/subject?
The question of ‘genre’ is such a tricky one; to some people it’s a badge of honour, to others it’s a pejorative that keeps you from being considered literary. As for me, I consider myself very much a genre writer, although I’m usually playing with two or three genres at once. But I think working within a genre can be similar to writing to a rhyme scheme or iambic pentameter or something similar: giving yourself a constraint to push up against challenges you to be more creative elsewhere. I also think that all literature is dialoguing with the stories that came before, and writing within a specific genre lets you be more overt about that interaction.
- How do you feel about ‘experimental’ literature? Have you ever employed an approach that might be seen as experimental?
I’m always open to reading something experimental; even if I hate it, picking apart why something didn’t work is often a really useful way of zeroing in on what you find valuable. I don’t think of my own writing as terribly experimental, though—I write in your typical novel structure without too much jumping around, and try to put the full stops in where they’re meant to be. That might change in the future, but in general I think more of my effort goes on the story rather than the form.
- Do you plot, or are you a ‘pantster’ writing without a definite plan, and why do you use this method of construction?
Oh, definite plotter. I come from a background in poetry, and that to me is something you can jump into without any real idea of where you’re going—oftentimes the discovery of what you’re really writing about is the crux of the poem. Prose, on the other hand, needs more thought from me. I don’t plan the entire thing out in total detail, but I have the overall arc ready before I get started, as well as an idea of the big scenes and where I want them to fall in the story. A professor of mine, George Szirtes, described a poem once as a photograph, a flash of something, where a novel is more like a film where you’re directed and taken through something. I definitely have to give my writer self a solid base of storyboards before I let her go off wandering.
- What, if any, input did you have in the design of the book cover, and is such collaboration important to you?
I was able to give input about overall look—whether I liked people on the cover or not, any ideas I had about fonts, etc, and I was very happy to be asked. I’ll be honest, though, I don’t think I have any design sense at all (see my mention of my drawing skills above!) and I was delighted to hand most of it over to someone who actually knew what they were doing.
- English is a temperamental language; how important is it for an author to understand its rules?
This is such an interesting question. On the one hand, I think you can’t interact with a form, a canon, etc until you understand it—if I’ve never paid attention to how a rhyme scheme works, then how can I break from it in a way that’s interesting and fruitful? Or how can I fully appreciate the artistic choices someone else is making? So in that sense, I do think it’s important to have a mastery of the language, or perhaps more accurately your language. Having said that, though, I think sometimes people talk about the rules of language when what they really mean is did you go to the right school, did you publish with the right press, etc (not that I think that’s what you’re asking here at all!), which is exclusionary and, frankly, shitty. So I suppose I feel similarly here as I do about experimental literature—I think of myself as understanding the rules, and using them is an important part of how I write, but I’m very willing to see someone else’s take on it.
- Finally, bearing in mind the wide choice of self-publishing platforms now available, what made you choose Fantastic Books Publishing as your route to the reading public?
Part of it is, again, probably the poetry background. Hardly anyone buys any poetry these days (she says, collapsing on her fainting couch and deploring the state of the youth), so self-published poetry isn’t as much of a thing as it is for fiction. The first book I had published was poetry, so I was already down the road of working with a publisher. But I never seriously considered self-publishing anyway; to do it well I think you need to be great at self-promotion and marketing, understand reaching people on social media, and overall just have an extra set of skills besides those of a hermit-y writer. Self-promotion makes my skin crawl and when I (rarely) tweet it’s usually something sweary, related to badgers, or both. I just don’t have the personality type or the skills to do well in self-publishing, and I really admire people who do!