Fiona Melrose’s exquisite debut novel, Midwinter is a touching meditation on growing up and mourning. It's been a resounding success, receiving a nomination for this year's Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Karina M. Szczurek interviewed her about the meaning of home for her as well as the emotion that went into writing Midwinter.
KARINA: You are South African but you lived abroad for several years. What led you away from South Africa and what led you back? Where is home?
FIONA: I have lived in the UK for much of my adult life though have wandered back to Johannesburg at intervals. I do seem to have a very low threshold for boredom and every few years I seem to pack up and move or do something different with my life. My initial reason for leaving was the feeling that Johannesburg and in particular the white monoculture in which I had grown up was, in the end, likely to suffocate me. It had, and still does have, very conservative views about women, their roles, the parameters of their lives, and can err on the side of anti-intellectualism, a sort of closed system. So, I left out of curiosity and a desire for more, more of everything, more of life. So, perhaps I am not curious at all but rather, greedy.
Home is everywhere and nowhere. I am frequently asked whether I feel I am South African or English. I find this a nostalgic notion, and a conservative one too – that we are wedded to nationhood. It is a very masculine ideal, it implies insecurity, this asserting one’s nationality as an absolute, being one thing which automatically means that one cannot be another. We only need to cast an eye to the UK and the US this past year to recognise this. I prefer to exert my citizenship through a more fluid, more relational identity.
I have people across the world that I love so dearly. I think my home is in those relationships and the experiences attached to them as well as the influences, cultural and otherwise that each has had over me. I have never lived in Italy for example and do not speak the language and yet, at each visit, I feel an intense metaphysical comfort and primal recognition
KARINA: Midwinter is your debut novel. Please share the story of its journey towards publication.
FIONA: Midwinter grew out of my experience of living on farm in Suffolk in the UK. I had never lived in the countryside before and the experience was extremely exacting and confronting. I studied an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, and this book was initially a short story. Over a year I set about turning it into a novel, working at night and over weekends.
Both my agent and publisher are based in the UK. I met my agent, Jo Unwin, through Twitter initially and then a freelance editor who had taken an interest in my work recommended my work to her. (I think that is how it went). Jo was the only agent I submitted to and she signed me immediately so I didn’t suffer the humiliations of endless rejections and years of torment which one hears so much about. I am always grateful to her for that. She has a phenomenal record and works very hard for her clients and, importantly to me, is just a thoroughly decent person.
My book found a very happy home with Corsair, a literary fiction imprint at Little, Brown UK. My editor there is Sarah Castleton. Jo I think realised that we are both a bit odd and she is right. It is a match made in heaven. Sarah is a hugely sensitive reader, intuitive yet thorough and is not afraid to put her energy (and, in the end, money) behind a quieter book – which Midwinter is. Having her support my career, has given me huge confidence and I trust her entirely with my work.
KARINA: Midwinter is set in Zambia and England. Colonialism and its horrifying consequences touch your characters' lives in the most intimate way. The novel touches on other seminal issues in current world politics, like Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq, but your handling of them is very subtle. How crucial is it for you as a writer to address these topics? Do you feel that being an African writer makes a difference in your approach?
FIONA: I am by nature political. I mistrust people who grew up in South Africa or any country with a complicated history, and yet have made no effort to engage with the issues of the past and the present – that is an easy cop out when such a heavy price was paid. That is not to say I don’t get it wrong and am forced to re-interrogate my thoughts and rethink my position, change my mind, but I do think an active engagement with ideas is something that is essential to who I am. I studied an MA in Political Thought at Wits – it very much shaped me into the person I am today.
Hearing you call me an African writer is still something I am coming to terms with and I am ambivalent about adopting the moniker. I feel in a way that it is a title I would need to earn to some degree and would be hugely humbled by. I certainly don't assume it.
I do think that being an outsider makes a huge difference – it is the gaze that all writers should adopt. And in both South Africa and the UK, I am by virtue of my fluid nationality, and meandering travels, always the outsider.
KARINA: You write very convincingly from the perspective of two men – a father and a son – struggling to come to terms with a great loss in their lives. How did you find their voices?
FIONA: The father, Landyn Midwinter, came to me clear as a bell. A sentence dropped into my head and I knew the voice not to be my own, not my internal voice, nor my public voice. And I knew it was an older man who lived on a farm. So, I followed that voice. He was so immediate to me it was as if he was sitting at my elbow reciting the story and all I had to do was write it down. Vale was more slippery. As a character he has a natural reticence and I felt that trying to hear him too, so, I had to work a little harder at him, wait a little longer and sit a little quieter to hear him properly.
I find voice is less about finding and creating in an active manner and more about waiting and listening.
The fact that I am a woman writing in men’s voices was neither here nor there though it is mentioned with relative frequency. The issues my characters deal with: grief, love, anger – these are all universals and come without gender assignment. The ways they are expressed and the prisms through which they are magnified will have been constructed along gendered lines but, under it all, we all bleed the same way.
KARINA: Grief – in its many manifestations – is central to your narrative. It is something that most of your readers will be familiar with in some form. How challenging did you find writing about it?
FIONA: As an experience, not pleasant. I didn’t find it any more difficult to access or express than other aspects in the novel but the experience of getting it on the page was very uncomfortable. Writing can be a fairly miserable business.
There were chapters which I dreaded returning to, knowing that it would require dredging a fairly deep well and one chapter in particular I left in sketch form right until the end. Even once it was written it needed another excavation to get it right and really get the scalpel into the meat.
Even during editing and now, on occasion, re-reading, there are sections that I cannot read without being somewhat overcome. I hope it is not simply an indulgence, but rather, something truthful that readers will respond to.
The same is true of my second book. There are a few sections which seem to penetrate further than others and even reading them casually results in fresh tears. But, in the end, that is what we turn to literature for, a kind of recognition, a consolation.
Fiona Melrose was born in Johannesburg but has spent the majority of her adult life in the UK, first in London and then in East Anglia. She moved to Suffolk to concentrate on her writing and it is there that Midwinter was conceived. Previously Fiona has worked in academia, NGOs, in public affairs and as an emerging markets analyst. She continues to keep a foot in both continents and is currently spending the majority of her time back in South Africa where she is completing her second novel.