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Introducing Readers on Writers – the series where our shadow judging panel interview the shortlisted authors for the Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award. In this interview, shadow judge Beth Jamie speaks to Tom Crewe about his shortlisted historical novel, The New Life. They discuss reimagining Victorian Britain, forbidden desire, queer joy and crafting a historical novel. Read more of their discussion below.

BJ: Since its publication, The New Life has received a deservedly fantastic response – how has it been to see the way it has been received by audiences?

TC: It’s been wonderful really, that would be the boring response! I mean, it’s a writer’s dream, I suppose – you spend all this time on your own wondering whether anyone is going to care or anyone’s going to want to publish it in the first place. At various points I had anxieties about all sorts of things, about the way the book was going. I definitely remember thinking at one time: ‘is this just too niche? Will anyone be interested in this subject or this kind of story?’. So, to be at this point now when so many people have read and responded to it and people find themselves in it, or find their own experiences in it, it’s great. It turns out not to be so niche after all, which is a really good feeling.

BJ: The book has resonated with its readers really strongly. I had such a great time reading it. It is cerebral and very engaging, and the incredible dialogue coupled with how visually rich the scenes are make it really evocative. You’ve achieved a fantastic balance between the book being very thought-provoking, but also retaining a page-turner effect as well.

TC: Oh wonderful! I don’t know if everyone finds it, but lots of people have said that it’s a page-turner, and that’s something I never could really be aware of when writing, so it’s a really lovely thing to hear. I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed the dialogue, that was something I worked very hard on.

BJ: I wanted to talk about the dialogue, actually – your prose feels authentic to the era, yet simultaneously very fresh and contemporary. The book never seems encumbered by commitment to historicised language, but what was the actual writing process like for you? Did it feel quite natural for you to write in that way?

TC: Writing is never natural in one sense. I certainly went over and over and over my sentences and paragraphs again and again trying to perfect it, but I almost never was doing that in pursuit of some kind of historical accuracy or truth. I wanted it to feel of its time, I suppose. I didn’t want to do anything crazily anachronistic, but I also wanted it to feel alive and fresh and dramatic, so it was really a matter of just trying to find the scene, find the drama, get the the rhythm of the dialogue working properly and, in general, to keep the prose interesting. I didn’t want to write anything that was a pastiche of Victorian literature; the prose has a kind of formality, but I think that’s just how I write. As a writer, I like using sentence structures or syntax which might be unfamiliar in the 21st century, but to me seems perfectly usable and interesting. I do think it is a casualty of the 20th century, or the last hundred years or so, that we’ve stripped back our prose. In general the prose of the 20th century has been cleaner or shorter, sharper. It seemed to me very interesting to try and combine the two things: to see what was rich and interesting in Victorian prose and syntax and to combine it with something more modernist or contemporary. All the way I was trying to find the balance that interested me and hoped that would make it interesting to a reader.

BJ: You’ve mentioned the novel had a gestation period of ten years – what was it that made the initial spark so potent that it stayed with you that long?

TC: I just felt like I’d had this original insight into a historical moment, that was what kept me, I think. I could see that there was something just intensely dramatic and, for me as a novelist, potentially novelistic in this hinge moment. You had optimism and excitement and the sense that these men could change the law – that there was essentially a gay rights movement in the early 1890s. Then, it runs into the Oscar Wilde trial and you have a kind of explosive collision, and then its aftermath. That was the scenario that had me right from the start. We remember the Oscar Wilde trial, so our sense of this period is coloured by this idea of tragedy or gloom and disaster. Even though it took me years to start writing the novel, I was still so attracted by the idea because of my interest in this as a hinge moment. No matter how many other things came into the novel, it is still fundamentally about exploring a moment of optimism and what happens to it when it meets this great historical disaster.

BJ: The book’s central characters are based on real historical figures, but you depart from the facts of their biographies from the onset of the novel. How did you decide where the boundaries between fact and fiction would smudge?

TC: In a sense that leads on from the last question, because I really wanted to focus on this hinge: to see how the Wilde trial impacted on this previous surge of optimism. It was incredibly, therefore, inconvenient to me that John Addington Symonds – whose life I could see also had novelistic potential, he was a perfect sort of proto-gay rights figure – died in
1893, two years before the Wilde trial. Years before I even started writing the book I looked at this and thought ‘well, I’m going to have to step off the historical treadmill and do it a different way’. I wanted to create a novelistic version of this real figure – take what really interested me in him out and put it into someone else. Thus begins a kind of counterfactual where we explore what might have happened if someone like Symonds had lived long enough and had been faced by the Wilde trial: a situation where he would have to decide where all his determination, energy and anger – at Wilde and what he had done – would go. From the very start I knew I would be in a parallel historical universe and that became the central element of my approach: to take what I needed, that I was writing a novel I hope could explore historical truth in its own terms by testing this alternative history. I wasn’t changing anything about the society or the time, so I hoped that I could still explore and expose a lot about that period by just putting some different people there and seeing what happened. It meant I could take what I needed, what I thought was interesting, what I thought was useful and what seemed nicely novelistic already. For example, the shyness of the real Havelock Ellis, whom Henry is based upon: it appeared as a wonderfully novelistic detail that someone who was so shy and retiring would end up being embroiled in this incredibly public and scandalous historical moment – and also that someone who developed a professional interest in sex would actually have a very complex sex life themself. I’d say in the end I was ruthless: I took what I wanted from history and left the rest to my imagination.

BJ: The infamous Oscar Wilde libel trial really does serve as a great backdrop to the novel. It blazes up without much prior warning to John and Henry, who are preparing to publish their book, Sexual Inversions. This, of course, helps to ground the novel firmly within the context of London at the turn of the 19th century, but the spectacle of the trial and how moral debate flares around it felt so similar to the way our contemporary news cycle prioritises the creation of media circuses. Did it feel somewhat familiar to write about the response to the Wilde trial?

TC: That’s a good question – I think I was always trying to just do justice to the historical period and the world I’d created: to see how the trial would affect all my characters and how it would change the course of people’s lives. However, one of the things you realise after you’ve written something is the way in which the real world has entered it. Then, it goes out into the real world and people respond to it in ways that have been shaped by things that have nothing to do with you or your expectations or intentions. Of course, there was so much about 19th century media culture that is intensely familiar: the Wilde trial was a kind of classic scandal sensation and we have seen things like that in our lifetime. I’ve said before that I sometimes think how we look at the past can be a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty situation: you can either emphasise the differences and the strangeness of the past or you can look for the similarities and familiarities. I’m someone who, overall, sees more similarities, or can see more continuities and resonances. The past is always open to us; it never shuts me off, it always pulls me in and says ‘look, we were doing something similar and we felt something similar’, so I did want for people to read the novel and see this as a 19th century that felt more familiar than strange. I wanted it to feel modern and contemporary and not shut off by stereotypes – I wanted it to feel close, and if the trial is one of the ways in which it does that then I’m glad.

BJ: Many contemporary popular depictions of Victorian sensibilities evoke prudishness and conservatism – yet it was really a time of major social reform and political mobilisation, of workers and women, for example. I’m also thinking of the 1850 Public Library Act and the creation of public parks, which would be regarded under contemporary neoliberalism as terrifyingly left wing. Is there any merit in us looking back to Victorian society for inspiration for advancement of rights and radical thought?

TC: Oh god, absolutely. It always dismays me and seems incredibly ignorant when people use the 19th century as a sort of yardstick to measure contemporary progress, or think of the 19th century only in terms of poverty or desperation or uncleanliness. There was a Twitter scandal a few months ago, one of those ones that only lasts about two hours, where people were angry that anyone had even dared to think about the 19th century in any progress terms at all.

It’s true, this was a century where there was massive poverty, distress and social harm, but actually there was also a huge contemporary awareness of it and a massive amount of effort made both to highlight it and to respond to it. This is also the era in which the Factory Acts were passed, the sanitary reforms were passed and inspection regimes were set up. It was actually the century of reform, of attempts to respond to problems in new ways. There were radical thinkers denouncing free markets and capitalism and arguing for a better way of living: John Ruskin, William Morris, Thomas Carlisle, Charles Dickens, George Elliot, you name it. You’ve had these great minds speaking out on injustice. We absolutely lack both of those things now in our contemporary moment – we lack the political response to poverty and distress, and we lack the intellectual response and energy in denouncing our social evils that were so characteristic of the 19th century. To me, really, it seems we’ve fallen a long way short of the example of the 19th century. It’s the most ridiculous condescension and ignorance if we try and pretend that we have entered a holy era when we absolutely have not.

BJ: One element of the novel which made it feel incredibly cinematic was your scene setting, particularly the beautiful descriptions of light and shadow you evoke. It made me wonder how scenes initially appear to you; is it informed by a visual picture, or more an atmosphere or mood?

TC: One of the interesting things about writing a second novel is that you can see more clearly the way you wrote the first, which was so much more instinctive. I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time, but I can see now clearly that I like writing in scenes. I find long stretches of narration quite dull and they don’t give me pleasure to write. Sometimes they’re just completely necessary but they’re not the thing that gives me real pleasure. It’s probably true of me as a reader, as well, that I love to see a novel come to life through scenes and dialogue: the way a particular moment, light, aspect or mood can be grasped. That is the type of writing which really appeals to me, so that was the writing I found myself doing. My dad is a painter, so I grew up surrounded by his art and I’m very interested in art now. I often used to think of the scenes almost as though they were paintings that were static until I set them into motion; I would think about where the light and shade would be falling and about what was in the scene to build it in my head, then bring the actors onto the stage. I think now I maybe did it too much, because it helped me start my chapters – I would sit and think ‘oh god, how am I going to write this?’ and then would start by building it up visually. That’s probably why so many of the chapters start in that way.

BJ: Amongst the diverse range of gay lives within the book, Edward Carpenter emerges as the person who’s circumstances most closely approximate the potential for the happiness ‘the new life’ could hold. Why was it important for you to portray gay joy within this story?

TC: I’m glad you asked that question. I definitely had the intention of, as you say, showing lots of different kinds of gay experience. I wanted to show that we shouldn’t think of gay life in the 19th century only in terms of repression or tragedy or loneliness. The obvious truth the minute you think about it is that most people never got into any trouble with the law and they – one way or another – found a way to live. We can’t imagine that they were all miserable all the time. I wanted to show that there were many ways to be gay at that time: people would lead different kinds of lives and have different kinds of daring or boldness, or enter into different kinds of relationships. You could have a gay man like John, who gets married to a woman in his youth, or a gay man like Carpenter, who is almost exactly the same age and same class background, who doesn’t get married and instead does something very different. It was crucial to have that diversity but that necessarily entailed also a focus on happiness, or at least allowing happiness into the story. I wanted to emphasise that happiness was available to these people in the 19th century and to get away from the stereotype of what it meant to be gay at that time. It just seemed like a human truth that there would be happiness in the story. In the case of John and Frank, it’s not a completely, I hope, obvious relationship, or an uncomplex relationship, but there needed to be a great wave of happiness, at least on John’s part, to help drive him through the plot. If he didn’t feel happy or feel that something joyful had been unleashed in him through this relationship it wouldn’t give all the force to his intellectual efforts. It needed to be there.

BJ: Through the novel, though, we see that of course not all of John’s relationships are coloured with this happiness. The relationship between John and his wife, Catherine, is so interesting. She is granted – in your portrayal of her – much more sympathy than John ever extends to her. How did you feel about the position Catherine occupies in the novel?

TC: So many people have responded so positively to Catherine. Lots of people have said that she’s their favourite character or in some way special to them. I do, in a way, think of her as the moral centre of the book, even though she’s not around on the page a lot of the time, or she’s there but only glimpsed at. She only has a few big moments, but her presence focuses a lot of the debates in the novel about both feminism and women’s rights. We can see her in relation to the other younger women characters in the book, including her own daughter: she represents generational women’s experiences and opportunity in the 19th century – and class, to some extent – but, she’s also there because she forces us to look at John’s behaviour and his activism in another light. If we were only to see things from John’s perspective it would be much too easy to pat him and, by implication, pat ourselves on the back at this as a story of progress; we would be thinking ‘how terrible that he was put under this pressure’ and cheer him on. What seemed inevitable to me, though, was that someone in his position, doing the things that he wanted to do whilst being married to a woman, was going to inevitably inflict pain and damage. The story might look very different from the perspective of a wife or from our 21st century perspective than from John’s own perspective.

Catherine’s experience is there to complicate, to show another side – she gives us a picture of this culture in the round, and we need that if we want to truly see the full effect of this homophobic culture; to see the ways in which it hurts women as much as it hurts men. It distorts and emotionally damages people: it’s not just that you don’t get to have sex with the person you want to have sex with, it corrupts your moral sense by limiting your choices, forcing relationships that should never have existed in the first place. We need to see that John almost cannot be a good person, that’s the bigger cost of this society and its repression – a moral degeneration or a moral corruption. If we don’t see that we lose sight of something important. So, in all of these ways Catherine creates all this moral energy around herself and it ramifies out into the rest of the book. It changes, for example, John and Frank’s relationship: Frank is very conscious of how she’s put in an awful position by being in the house.

BJ: Catherine does, in a way, function as an obstacle to the narrative arc you would otherwise be rooting for. She really shifts the reader’s perspective and through attention to her experience, we feel John becoming increasingly dislikeable. As the story progresses, John becomes somewhat consumed by his own preoccupation with seeing the book through to publication. What were the challenges of writing this development in his character?

TC: I didn’t really write the book to a plan, so in some senses he caught me off guard. I realised through the process of writing the way in which his options were being narrowed, and if he wanted to really pursue his goal, he was going to end up being a difficult or frustrating character. It was interesting to see what kind of person he became by the end. I

liked the idea the reader would have this tension between believing in what John was doing and that Sexual Inversions should be published, but also thinking ‘I rather he didn’t do this’.

It’s a nice feeling to create in a reader, and it’s a feeling I felt myself because, I hope, the book is full of these kinds of dilemmas or moral problems. I hope they are very open-ended because I didn’t feel like I had the answers: I was torn, both able to see why John felt one way and to feel how others felt. Maybe it ends up being a comment on the society as a whole – that it actually doesn’t allow these answers or any easy progress, and that’s the bigger tragedy. I wanted the readers to be able to make up their mind about what they would have done and I wanted the story to be difficult and challenge people, and John was one of the best ways of doing that.

Sometimes people have told me ‘you’re making him sound too unsympathetic’, but I like the idea he’s a kind of tragic hero – he can’t do anything right, he’s flawed and it’s not all his fault. Someone said he’s a bit like John Proctor in The Crucible, who goes to death rather than base the rest of his life on a lie.

BJ: Through it all John remains committed to the possibility of change, arguably to his detriment. One of the central motivations for our characters, and clearly for John, is the idea “we must live in the future we hope to make” – is this a message you were conscious of promoting to readers today, too?

TC: Yes, I think so. I realised later that I came up with this phrase but there’s also the 21st century equivalent: be the change you want to see in the world. It’s essentially the same concept. I hope it’s one of the ways the book can speak to the present moment, or ten, twenty years into the future, because obviously one always hopes that their book will live that long. It’s a permanently relevant question – how do we achieve change? How can we create change without being the change ourselves? There’s a flip side, too, to this permanent debate – should the way we save the planet be through becoming vegan and reducing our carbon footprint by flying less? Or is it by protesting outside the embassies of the great polluting countries and voting a particular way? There’s a great debate about whether we change society from within, on an individual level, or whether it must be done culturally, legally or politically. It is, of course, a big issue through my book, but I hope readers can see it’s relevant to our contemporary world too, especially in this crucial moment where climate change makes considering the future so problematic. We have the same preoccupation with trying to make a better future and fixating on the next steps. It’s a novel set in the past but it’s about the future, and I hope that’s something people can respond to.

BJ: To continue on the subject of the present day, and thinking about the award you have been shortlisted for: what excites you about the current literary landscape in the UK and Ireland?

TC: Whenever I’m asked this question I have a very embarrassing answer, which is that I don’t really read very much contemporary fiction. I always feel a bit of a fraud trying to answer the question because I don’t read enough new writing – and that is not at all a reflection on the quality of today’s writing, it’s just my own interests and my own anxious feeling that there is so much in the past I want to read, and the idea that I’ll get around to my own generation later. So, I can hardly say anything about the present moment except that it feels more broadly – as someone at least who is contributing to it – that the contemporary literary scene feels a very open and exciting field. It feels like a really good time for reading, and I can see how young people are reading and how books have become part of contemporary popular culture in a way they weren’t when I was in my teens or twenties. Any time where Sally Rooney has a new book out and it’s on the front page of the Guardian must be a good time for literature because it means that books are important to people. How could you not feel optimistic about that? My only hope is that people do read Dickens every now and again, too – but look at Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead: when I see people on the tube reading that book day after day it makes me happy on it’s own terms, but it also makes me think ‘how many people will have been inspired to go on an read David Copperfield afterwards?’ and that’s a wonderful chain effect.

BJ: Long live reading being chic! I want to end by asking what it would mean to you to win the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award?

TC: It would be really special. This award feels really big and open: it’s not just for novels, or a particular kind of novel, but rather is more about celebrating a writer at the start of their career and their achievements. In a way the thought can be a bit exposing – you think ‘oh god, it’s really about me more than my book’, and not every award feels like that, but really that makes it potentially even more rewarding: it feels like a vote of confidence in you as a writer, and as a person at the outset of their career. It would feel like a wonderful recognition and something to feel very proud of. I do feel proud.

BJ: Well, it’s a very well-deserved nomination – good luck!

Young Writer Award @YoungWriterYear

Follow us on twitter. The Young Writer of the Year Award is a prize of £10,000 for a writer under 35.

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