Thursday, 10 November 2011

Rachel Connor on pair-bonding antelopes, Muggletonians, the genius of Julie Delpy and moving meditation.

It takes ten years. Jill Dawson said that and I believe her. She said that from the moment you decide to write fiction seriously to the moment when you've got something on the shelves that you can be really proud of is usually a full decade. And by that reckoning then Yorkshire based writer Rachel Connor is at least a couple of years ahead of the game.

I met Rachel when she came to the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank on one of the first courses we were running. That was a starting to write course back in 2003. Since then she's completed an MA in writing at Manchester University and works for the Arvon Foundation herself. And now there's Sisterwives a complex, compassionate, subtle, and seductive story about love and what it means to be human. And so, as is my wont, I asked her some questions and she gave me thoughtful and thought-provoking replies. And here they are:

Can you give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 49, not 51...)?

Raised in Teeside, craved the city; studied hard, played harder. Embarked on world tour: Australia, Africa, Europe. Laughed, loved, adventured. In one year gained a PhD, two lecturing jobs and a baby. Wrote lots of academic stuff. Migrated to the hills, married, started writing fiction. Wrote a novel. Then another.

Why should I read Sisterwives?

I'd like to think it has all the elements of a good story  secrets, conflict, characters who undergo journeys, learn and change. But it also asks questions about what it is to be human and to live together: what is fidelity? Is it possible to be faithful to just one person? and other more ponderous things like the place of faith and spirituality in our lives; the challenges and benefits of living in a community and how we pull of individuality and desire.

What are your personal feelings about polyamorous relationships?

If you're asking if it's for me, then no! I see that for some people there might be benefits, but I couldn't cope with the sharing. I'd be constantly comparing myself to the other wives. I'm fascinated by it, though, for all that. desire and intimacy can't always be placed into neat boxes in the way that traditional western marriage (or cohabitation) requires us to do. Monogamy might be tough, but it tests us. Those vows, rules, boundaries    whatever  are socially constructed. But the commitment (whether public or private) forces us to hold in check our impulses, egos, our individual desires and to consider someone else's needs as much as our own. For that reason I think fidelity is as much a spiritual issue as it is a social one.

Any reaction from within the Mormon community?

I've had a few excited messages on Twitter from people who've stumbled across a mention of the book. So we'll see. It's a big debate in the States - there's a campaign to legalise polygamy - but it's only fundamentalist Mormons who actually practise plural marriage. I can see that the book could be open to criticisms of glamourising polygamy and obscuring how women can be oppressed by it. But I also want to show how those power dynamics can be subverted. The other thing to say is that although I draw on Mormonism, I weave in other faith systems too, borrowing bits from Quakerism for example, and the history of seventeenth century English dissenters. The Muggletonians are my favourites.

What are your hopes for this book?

That someone buys the film rights for vast sums of money. No, in all seriousness: mostly I'd like the book to make people think, to ask themselves questions about human relationships and love and desire. And acknowledge that these things are more complex than our socially engineered structures allow them to be.

Are you working on another book?

Yes - in between working for the Arvon Foundation, and family life, and the multifarious tasks involved in launching a first novel with a small press. It's still early days, so I'm tentative. The new novel takes its inspiration from real people and places, so in that sense it's very different to Sisterwives. it's set in Glasgow in the early 20th century, so involves some research as well. My biggest decision so far is around viewpoints: whose is the story?

I  know you also write radio plays, what excites you about that form?

I love that compressed form in which to tell a story - so different from the expansive nature of a novel. I love the open possibilities that radio offers, the ability to travel anywhere in time and space. When I'm writing radio, it feels much more like play, somehow, than the novels I write. I give myself permission to unleash the child in me - I'd love to inject more of that into my fiction. But mostly I like the intimacy that radio can engender with the listener. I think it suits my writing style.

Who - in life or in writing - do you admire and why?

Julie Delpy. She's got it all: she's a hugely talented singer-songwriter, actor and director. I first saw her in Before Sunrise years and years ago. I love that film and its sequel Before Sunset and discovered that Delpy and Ethan Hawke both collaborated on the script. Nothing much happens - in both films, like in a classic modernist novel, they wander around European cities, talking - so the dialogue is everything. Genius.

What do you think about the Man Booker prize? Does it even matter?

I zoned out of this year's readability versus quality debate. I just couldn't engage with it. I certainly don't feel the Man Booker is a guarantee of quality, though what's worrying is that there are swathes of readers who faithfully work their way through the shortlist, thinking it's a benchmark for the best writing out there. But the very concept of literary prizes is bizarre when you think about it. On the basis of decisions taken by a chosen few, a small number of novels get a huge sales boost and literary careers are cemented. that said, if I won the Orange Prize, I wouldn't be complaining.

Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?

Honestly? Doing the same thing. Still writing, and balancing that with something out there in the world - whatever that is - teaching, working with people in some way. I'd like to have another novel (or two?) in print. I'd like to have a few radio plays broadcast. There's very little I'd want to change. Apart from maybe allowing myself more time off...

Recommend something...

Five Rhythms movement. It's a form of free dance in which there are no set steps but you follow the music though a 'wave' flowing into 'chaos' and eventually into stillness. It can be done by anyone, no matter what their age or physical ability. I've found it to be an amazing experience.. Sometimes it's just a brilliant workout - like being at a nightclub with none of the drawbacks like being hit on or drinking too much. Other times (at the risk of sounding like an old hippy.), it can be like a form of moving meditation and unlock stuff you didn't know was there. I've had some of my best insights while dancing. The first time I did it I was on a huge high. Then I went home and cried hysterically.

I'm not really selling it am I?

No, not really... finally, tell me something I don't know.

Kirk's dik dik antelopes - native to eastern and southwestern Africa - are the smallest breed of antelopes on the planet (they grow to a maximum of 70cm). I once fell out of a tree while observing them in Kenya. And here's the thing: they find one mate and pairbond for life. None of your polyamory for them...

Sisterwives is published by Crocus Books...

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