Author meets Reviewer: ELEANOR WASSERBERG meets Mel Mitchell

Article published on January 20, 2017.

Mel Mitchell has been pitching for Foxlowe from the start so it seemed entirely logical to put her in touch with Eleanor

  1. In your introduction to Foxlowe back in our Summer issue you spoke about the novel being a love letter to the Staffordshire moorlands – was it the location and its ancient history that inspired the novel or did you think of the idea of the cult first?

I wish I was the kind of organised writer who could answer this more coherently, but I think what happened was a coming together of a few elements at once. I had Freya’s character forming quite clearly in a few short pieces—she always appeared with two daughters. I knew I wanted to write about the Moorlands and in particular the pagan sites and double sunset optical illusion. Then when I placed Freya and her girls there, the idea of a strange community grew around that, and became more and more cult-like the closer I knitted Freya and the landscape together. So it’s probably true to say that the cult element was the last one to come into focus for me, but looking back I think Freya’s character was always destined to be a cult leader; she didn’t really work in any other setting.

  1. I found reading Foxlowe from the point of view of Green incredibly effective – her ‘innocence’, her acceptance and what she doesn’t understand about her way of life become more and more sinister as the novel progresses – how did you decide whose story to tell? Was it always Green’s story?

Yes, it was always intended to be Green’s voice and story. I do have sketches of other voices in first person as exploratory exercises, especially Freya and Blue, but they were never intended for the final version. It had to be Green because she is in a unique position- as she says herself, she was the only one born at Foxlowe. Even Blue has the ghost of a ‘real’ life, a past. Green is the only one for whom Freya’s experiment truly works; she is absolutely Freya’s creature. That makes her the most interesting character for me, especially in the second part of the book.

  1. Green speaks frequently about passing stories on, which often seemed like a very dark version of Chinese whispers! – for you was this more about Green finding a way to justify her existence and place in the group or was it simply her lack of education and ability to express herself in any other way?

That’s a great way to describe it! The impulse to pass stories on is one way I tried to explore her trauma. She insists on the stories because they are her link to Freya’s version of the world and the structures around which Foxlowe has been built. The Time of the Crisis, for example, can be understood as Freya’s post-natal psychosis, which is expressed through the idea of the Bad. Green would never be able to express it that way, but she tries to pass it on to explain the world as she has been taught to see it. The moment when Green begins telling her own version of the stories, rather than trying to remember Freya’s or one of the others’ voices, is both a coming of age for her and a red flag that she is struggling to escape that way of understanding her experiences and memories.

  1. There is a real nature/nurture debate running through the novel and there are clear contrasts in behaviour and character between Green and Blue but also with Toby – do you think Green’s behaviour was straightforwardly influenced by Freya or would the dark side of her character have manifested itself anyway?

I don’t believe, as Freya does, that there is an evil seed in Green at all. She suffers in a different way to the others because she is Freya’s natural daughter and so, despite Freya’s claim not to recognise natural bonds, she is subject to a more intense focus of Freya’s damaging influence. There is a great deal of natural love and warmth in Green—for Freya, her home, and the other two children, which in another environment might have led to a balanced, secure, happy child. Toby has the more benign neglect of Charlotte/Valentina to cope with (which isn’t to downplay the abuse he suffers) and Blue is always somehow apart, an outsider from the beginning. There is a natural impulse to learn and understand in Blue, which leads her to question and explore, and which Green is too afraid to acknowledge in herself and so suppresses. I always thought of the story as in part being about the consequences of the choices of adults visited on the children they are responsible for, and the three children are failed in different ways. So I suppose I come down on the nurture side of the debate, at least for this set of characters!

  1. The novel challenges notions of good and bad, implying (perhaps) that there can be a motivation or justification for either – was this something you deliberately wanted to explore or was it led by the characters?

I don’t think I consciously tried to explore it, no, but it is true that Freya’s depiction of the world as being divided into The Good and The Bad is intended to be glaringly reductive and weak. Even the very worst things that characters do in the novel, objectively horrifying and immoral, can be traced back to a motivation and justification much deeper than “they’re just a bad person.” They are all the heroes of their own stories, and if you asked them they could give you plenty of explanations for their behaviour. Nevertheless I imagine their lives are very much blighted by what happens; none of them ever escape it.

  1. Do you think there is any way of justifying the passivity of some of the peripheral characters in the group? Do they deserve to be held partly responsible for what happened?

This was one aspect of the cult setting that I really enjoyed writing. The passivity of a cult group when something terrible is happening is a fascinating psychological phenomenon, a kind of extreme bystander effect. There’s a huge amount of cognitive dissonance involved, which is fun to write. Green calls it the “pull of the shoal”, and tries to explain that the fear of losing that sense of family, community, and belonging, is stronger than any other moral impulse. We all look to our community for guidance and if everyone around us is saying, this is right, this is the way, it will take a rare character to stand up to it. She also talks about the two selves that are at war in a cult member, something that came up a lot when I read cult survivor narratives, and that I made explicit with the “two names” opening. All of that said, none of this diminishes the responsibility of the adults at Foxlowe; it only helps explain their failures.

  1. There is a religious element normally associated with the word ‘cult’ but in Foxlowe this is limited to the rituals that Freya instigates and are obviously inspired by her own issues – did you deliberately stay away from a more formal religious representation?

I made Freya’s cosmology deliberately flimsy, as I touched on above. She is trying to articulate her own terror; she is a deeply frightened woman, who attempts to impose control on her environment in response. The rituals are a mixture of old folksy superstitions (scattered salt for example), half-baked pagan beliefs about light and dark, ley-lines and solstices, and the simply made up. It all works for Freya because it is about very real things: depression, jealousy, love, hope. The formality of rituals, festival days, and simply having a different name for God and the Devil, is as close as Freya’s world gets to conventional religion.

  1. Do you think an alternative way of life is desirable, or even possible, in any way? Without Freya could the group have found a workable compromise?

I hope it comes through in the story that at its best, a place like Foxlowe can be a haven for the lost. All of the characters are looking for family, because society has let them down in some way. The world can be cruel and hopeless for people, and I can’t blame people for looking for another way to live. In terms of what was possible in the world of the novel, I think Kai’s story is the turning point. At that moment the group have a chance to become something more benign again, as was always Richard’s plan – he was just a feckless, work shy rich kid at heart. Libby represents that other path they all could have taken. But there’s also a sense in the story for me that their removal from the world is incredibly precarious and in the end utterly illusory. The shop runs, the walkers, the road: it’s all crowding in. The children are growing up and Blue and Toby are itching to discover what’s out there. I think Toby is right when he tells Green “it was all ending anyway.”

Many thanks, Eleanor

Mel Mitchell
December 2016713ervm4bl

Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg
Fourth Estate 978-0008164102 pbk Jan 2017

Foxlowe is an nb Recommended Read in the nb91 Winter issue of nb magazine – order your free (p&p applies) copy from the nudge shop while stocks last! (UK only)

 

 

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