Welcome to Guildtalk. For this exclusive series, the Rumpus has partnered with the Authors Guild to bring attention to exciting new voices in American literature. In each installment, an established Authors Guild member will choose an emerging talent or a largely unknown master to interview about writing, publishing, marketing, craft, and teaching. The result should broaden our understanding of what it means to live a literary life. It will also bring us together for a conversation about what it means to be a writer in the twenty-first century. In this second installment, distinguished author and Authors Guild Board Member Amy Bloom speaks to novelist Christie Watson on behalf of The Rumpus.
Christie Watson is the award-winning author of Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away. Watson’s second novel, Where Women Are Kings, came out April 2015 from Other Press. Her new novel follows the story of a young boy who believes two things: that his Nigerian birth mother loves him like the world has never known love, and that he is a wizard. In this interview, Watson discusses her writing process, how the themes she is concerned with as a novelist transcend from book to book, and how her work has been received by the world, both in the UK and the US.
The Rumpus: My first question is about writing process. Do you have any sense for yourself of how you got from Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away to Where Women Are Kings? Is it the kind of thing where one book led to the other, or that when one was done you turned yourself around three times and went in a very different direction?
Christie Watson: I think they’re very similar in theme, and themes as a novelist, I guess, come from somewhere subconscious and we just carry those around with us. My themes in both novels are of culture and race and loss and family. It would be very hard to lose those themes because that’s what I’m interested in.
Where Women Are Kings is a very different story than Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away. It’s set in London, which made the research faster and easier. However, I can certainly see similarities in theme and particularly in style of writing. It was quite fun coming out of first person and playing with third person, and just making different narrative decisions. But in terms of what I’m writing about, I guess we write the same story over and over again because that’s just us making sense of the world as novelists.
Rumpus: Richard Rhodes says, “The writer doesn’t pick the subject, the subject picks the writer.” I think that’s probably true.
Did your relationship with your press change after the second book or after the really positive reception to Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away?
Watson: I feel like people are talking more seriously about me as a novelist now, whereas the focus of the first book in terms of PR and marketing was very much “nurse made good.” I got asked continuously about my day job as a nurse, which I still have, but I haven’t been asked about it as much on this round of publicity. I was a novelty. When I won the Costa First Novel Prize I was pitted against Julian Barnes and people like that. For the press, it was a great hook; and for the tabloid press in particular, it was fantastic to be able to write “Nurse Pitted Against Literary Heavyweight” type headlines.
Rumpus: I have to say, as an American, it’s very nice to contemplate a world in which tabloids are actually writing about who’s in competition for a book prize.
Watson: Oh really? Yeah, it has been a very different experience in the UK and the US in terms of marketing, but also in terms of what people ask you in interviews, etc. It’s been quite an interesting thing to understand that culturally, and particularly when we are talking about books and the literary scene, they’re very different marketplaces, the US and the UK. It was a good experience. Where Women Are Kings, in the UK, it was a struggle to promote that book because it’s very dark and has lots of difficult topics. People found it really difficult to talk about, I think. But in the US, I’ve had so many really positive reviews, which has been fantastic, and I’ve had a lot of press recently in the US about Where Women Are Kings. So I think maybe people are a bit more receptive about talking about issues of adoption and child abuse and very difficult and dark subjects than they were are in the UK. It’s been an interesting journey.
The other thing that was interesting, is that the US version of the book, the exact same book, is one hundred pages shorter with a different beginning and a different end than the UK version, which is quite unusual.
Rumpus: How did that come about?
Watson: Partly because my editorial process with the US version happened quite some time after the UK version, so it was left in a drawer, which was a positive thing. But also, partly because the market is so different, it had to translate. Even though the language wasn’t translated, it had to translate in a cultural way to something that was meaningful in another place.
Rumpus: What big changes were driven by the opportunity to rewrite it—not just for the United States, but to rewrite it period, to make things different and better? I think this is the kind of thing that novelists often wish for, that there would be another edition in which they could apply everything they now know that they hadn’t when they wrote it the first time. What were you mindful of in the changes?
Watson: It was everything you teach in a creative writing class, which is that so much of the first version, or the finished version as you see it, is scaffolding to get to the story. The very fact that it can be ten chapters shorter and still be the same book says an enormous amount. The thing that I stuck with, which was quite difficult for my American publishers, was that I was absolutely certain it had to end the same. From a marketability and sales point of view—and I’m not going to give away any spoilers—I was advised against it a number of times from various people. But I felt absolutely that it had to be true to the characters, which is the only thing I felt really, really strongly about the entire way through both with the UK and US versions. It had to end as it ended.
Rumpus: You are clearly a champion of great feeling and intense emotionality, and a great opponent of the sentimental, which seems to be a great combination.
Watson: I think that nursing has allowed me that. I think my time working in children’s intensive care, which I don’t do anymore, but all those years that I spent as a nurse, from the age of seventeen, just allowed me an insight into human emotion at those times of life when it’s so important. And to see and witness those times of grief and love and loss and all those things was such a huge privilege, both in my own personal life, but it also, I think, spills over into my writing. I think the one thing that most novelists have is some degree of emotional intelligence, and if you don’t have that, then perhaps you might struggle to be a novelist, because that has to come out somewhere.
Rumpus: Yes, I think that’s very delicately put. I wonder whether or not you feel there was a certain direction, not only about your career as a nurse—which clearly shaped some of the response to the first book, that you were a sort of this great dark horse coming out as a surprise in terms of the literary heavyweights—but also, do you find yourself, as lots of women writers do, on the receiving end of domestic questions?
Watson: I do, and it still shocks me. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m fed up with it now, but I certainly seem to be more angry about it now than ever. I cannot count the times I’ve been asked how I juggle family and motherhood with being a novelist and working. I don’t imagine that a man who was running an investment bank and had four children at home would be asked the same question. And I certainly don’t see it with male writers. There’s a brilliant writer who won the Costa Prize after me: Nathan Filer, he actually won the overall award. He was a nurse, as well. I had this discussion with him, I asked, “What kind of questions are you being asked?” and he said, “Well, it’s about the work, it’s about mental health, it’s about the politics, it’s about the issues I’m writing about.” I have been asked everything from what brand of lipstick I use, to what’s my signature dish, and where I like to stay in hotels. It’s incredibly shocking.
Rumpus: I have to say the idea that you are a successful novelist, and you work and you have children, that you have a signature dish is sort of hilarious.
Watson: I have plenty of signature dishes I like to eat, but very few that I have time to cook. There is a big gender difference. When my first novel, Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away came out, Helon Habila wrote a novel, Oil on Water. It was set in the Niger Delta, as was mine, and it was about the politics of will, as was mine. I was terrified; I thought we had written the same book. But his is completely different, as is anything written by anyone else. But mine was billed initially as a domestic drama. So many people said I had written this domestic story, but it was really about politics, and it’s not so much domestic. It’s about civil war and about gender-based silence. It was a very depressing experience in a lot of ways.
The good thing about this is that recently I’ve done a lot of press in the US and people have asked really intelligent questions about the book. I think it has been different for the second book. Maybe people are taking me a bit more seriously as a novelist now, which is great, because I want to talk about the issues that I write about, which is why I write about them. I just don’t have a signature dish.
Rumpus: I was very interested in the mother’s letters in Where Women Are Kings. I wondered if those letters had come to you very early in her voice, or later in the book as you were working your way through it. I think they sort of punctuate and act as tent poles. They both illuminate and they hold something up to be seen more clearly.
Watson: Those letters were the easiest thing of the whole novel for me to write. They just came naturally. I don’t know where they came from. I wanted to write Deborah’s voice in first person. I wanted to have her psychosis unravel for the reader, and I supposed the only way I thought would be a good way to do that, especially with the other two characters being in third person, was to have her lack of insight come through in letters. The interesting aspect of it was at the end, I wanted Obi, the adopted father, to be translating these letters. So, actually, we’re never really clear if it’s what she wrote or if it’s just his translation of what he wanted her to write. It was a very interesting tool that I would definitely use again. Slicing them through the novel was very useful to help with structure. But the main use for them was to use Deborah’s voice in the first person and be able to imagine her writing these letters as she would have done without any sort of insight into her mental illness.
Rumpus: It works wonderfully to me both where it shines light on something and is also still mysterious. Did you have any role in the jacket cover for Where Women Are Kings? Did they have to go through lots of covers? Or was it one and done, everyone agreed it was perfect?
Watson: There have been a number of different jacket covers. But Other Press has such a great reputation and I have never seen a bad cover from them, they’re just brilliant in terms of their cover design, and they see how important it is. But the US Other Press version of the Where Women Are Kings cover is my favorite by far. It’s sort of an electric blue with silver stars throughout it and this boy’s face and it’s absolutely beautiful. It expresses the book very well I think. It’s really hopeful and loving but quite dark and it’s obviously nighttime. I think it’s absolutely genius. They are really good about involving the writers, which I’m not sure is typical of many publishers who have big book illustration design people. They are very good at asking what do you think about this one, or this one. They come up with a number of covers, but that cover for me was immediately the one.
Rumpus: I feel obliged to ask, although when people ask me, it makes me want to hit them. Are you working on something else?
Watson: I do want to hit you now. And we were getting on so well! No, I’m kidding. I’m working on book three. I always plan to take some time off and not write, but then I’m miserable when I don’t write, and I’m miserable if I do write. I’m writing book three with the same process I have taken with both books before. I thought by now it might be slightly easier but it’s not easier at all. I write a draft, realize it’s rubbish, put it in the bin, then write another draft, realize it’s rubbish, put it in the bin. So I’m on the third draft, and I’m getting to what the point of the story is but I’m still not sure yet, I’m still not quite sure. And I’ve probably written two hundred thousand words that are already binned. And that seems to be my working process, which is very difficult but I think not uncommon of many writers.
Rumpus: I think it is difficult, I think it is not uncommon, and I think it is, in its own dark way, cheering to other people who are in the process as well.
Author photo © Cheryl George. This interview was transcribed by Mary Allen.