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Avital Carno talks novels, feminism and political fiction with novelist, poet and journalist Sian Norris, currently write-in-residence at Bristol’s Spike Island.  

What are you working on at the moment?

I started the Spike Island residency at the beginning of January, and the remit for the funding was to develop the book that I’ve been working on for the past couple of years.

The novel is set in 1920s Paris and explores the lives of women living in the city during that time. So really the residency has been a process of redrafting, and editing and going through, and really making it the best book it can be in order to get it to publishers.

‘I do think that there’s this kind of romanticized idea of being writer’

I’ve also been working on a new project about the refugee crisis so that’s really exciting. So I’ve been juggling both things. I’ve also been running a lot of workshops and literary events, particularly using the kind of subject matter from the Paris book, and the influences of 1920s Paris to inspire the events in the workshops. [ . . . ] So it’s been really exciting. I love it and I don’t want it to end!

Do you find it easy to write?

Yes and no. Writing is hard, I think. It’s hard work, and I think that when I first started the residency I did this interview on the radio and they said ‘you must find it easy to write’, and I was like ‘no it’s really hard work, and you have to work all the time’, and I am working all the time. And you really have to apply yourself to get the work done.

‘You just have to write all the time. That’s it. Just write and write. Write everything […]’

I do think that there’s this kind of romanticized idea of being writer—that it just comes, like the muse comes to you and it’s all elegant and you’re not just sat there screaming ‘Aghhh’. Because it’s really hard work, it’s emotionally hard work and it is a job.

Feminism is obviously very important to you. How do you think that being a woman affects the way that you write, or your identity as a writer?

I think there’s lots of ways to answer that question. So there was this big thing that happened five years ago, maybe longer, with V. S. Naipaul [ . . . ] the Nobel laureate writer. He did this interview where he said that he was better than any woman writer, ever, including Jane Austen, and he singled out Jane Austen for particular ire. [This was] because he wrote about the universal, and women wrote about the domestic.

It was really interesting to watch the waves of backlash against it. What I find ironic is that he wrote a novel called The House of Mr Biswas, and I was like, if that’s not domestic, I don’t know what is! But initially [the reaction was]: women write about the universal, women don’t write about the domestic! But then it was also like, actually the domestic is universal: women’s experiences, women’s stories, are universal just as men’s stories are.

It was interesting because that initial thing was ,‘Oh no we’re much better than the domestic, we write universal stories’, but then it was, ‘Well, actually, domestic stories have equal value to any other story.’ It’s not that you can separate the two. And I think one of the [other] things in terms of being a woman and a writer is that I’m really much more interested in telling stories about women.

Do you think that all writing is, or has to be, inherently politicised?

It’s really interesting because I was having this conversation last week, with this writer friend of mine. He was asking about my new book, and he was asking if it was set pre or post- Trump. And I said ‘oh I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it!’.

I have now. But I do think that at this moment in time when there’s such an attack on freedom of speech, and creativity, and the ‘liberal elite’, or this idea that if you’re creating or writing or making art that you’re somehow part of the ‘liberal elite’, then it’s not about having a duty to be political, but it’s important to make work that engages with politics.

And I think you can do that in all sorts of ways […] You don’t need [your work] to be a political treatise […] I think with everything being so difficult right now politically, it is important to speak out and to use your work to discuss these issues, and that’s the kind of work that I want to produce. But I don’t think it’s incumbent on everyone to produce it.

Sian will be working at Spike Island until the end of April

What advice would you give to other aspiring authors?

You just have to write all the time. That’s it. Just write and write. Write everything. And don’t be scared that it’s not very good, or that it’s not working, just keep writing. You have to just [write].

And take a notebook around, and write things down, and just notice stuff. So I’ve just written a short story about a boat, because I saw someone on a boat. There’s all different places you can find ideas, you just have to keep writing, that’s the only thing you can do. And if you’re working on a long thing do fifteen minutes a day. But don’t stop writing.

What’s your favourite sentence that you’ve ever written?

I can tell you—hold on—it’s the last line of my book [‘the Paris book’]. Here we go: ‘It didn’t matter whose party it was, when the only thing that mattered was that the party continued and that the celebration never stopped.

‘It would never end, it would never change, and we its guests would never grow old and forget. We would always be here, sitting where the roads crossed on the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail, glowing pink in the lamplight.’ The End. [she laughs] And that’s my favourite sentence.

Sian Norris is writer-in-residence at Spike Island until 30th April. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and her short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on Kindle. Sian is working on a novel based on the life of Gertrude Stein.


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