Elmet, the stunning debut novel by Fiona Mozley and finalist for 2017 Man Booker Prize, takes readers to the haunting, forest in Yorkshire where the bonds of family and depths of greed are tried and tested. Told in the voice of teenaged son, Daniel, Elmet offers a glimpse into just how far people can go in the name of love and money.
Place is so key to this narrative; it both sets the tone and helps to build the suspense. How did you decide on the setting for this novel?
The setting for this novel was probably the easiest decision I had to make during its creation. Long before ‘Elmet’ was a novel, and long before it was a collection of poems by Ted Hughes, it was the name of the old Brittonic kingdom that covered the area in the north of England that is now the southern and western parts of Yorkshire, just south of York (that’s the original York, not the new one!). It’s the area I grew up in, and although I started writing the novel while I was living and working in London, I always knew that it was going to be set within this familiar landscape. In fact, I wrote the opening while I was on an early Monday-morning train back to the city, having spent the weekend at home visiting my parents. Yorkshire has a grand literary heritage. It was the home of the Bronte sisters, and Dracula washed up in his coffin at Whitby, on the Yorkshire coastline. What is more, although Robin Hood is famously associated with the city of Nottingham, many of the medieval ballads situate him a little further north, in the landscape in which Elmet is set. The whole area was once a forest, but now – as with the rest of England – trees are sadly few.
Daniel is an interesting choice for narrator; how did you decide on his voice? What do you feel his point of view brings to the story?
Daniel was the character that took the longest to form, and in many respects I think that made him an ideal narrator. At the beginning of the writing process, I had a very clear idea in my mind of what ‘Daddy’ (Daniel’s father) and Cathy (his sister) would be like. They are the more obvious protagonists, and I wanted the novel to explore the differences and surprising similarities between this father and daughter. However, I knew that neither of these characters could narrate, because they are not contemplative types. They prefer action to words. I also knew that I didn’t want to write in the third person. There were lots of social and political issues I wanted to explore in the work, and I knew that if I wrote with a lofty authorial voice it would all seem rather didactic. I thought it would be a lot more interesting to explore those ideas from the perspective of someone who is in certain ways quite naïve, and who describes these ideas using the vocabulary he has available to him, rather than the vocabulary of someone who has had access to a university education. So Daniel sort of developed. He started out as just a faint sketch, but as the novel progressed I think he became clearer and clearer. Sometimes he started to take over.
You are a novelist, a Medievalist, and a bookseller. Aside from a love of reading, do these roles overlap in any ways? Does one inform the other?
I think it’s very important for writers to do things other than write. It is important to come into contact with different people, to have conversations with them, to listen to them. Any customer-facing job can do this, and it just so happens that book-selling is a particularly nice one. I’m also writing a PhD in Medieval Studies. I think this work greatly informed Elmet. Although it’s a contemporary novel, I wanted it to be soaked in history. I wanted there to be a sense of antiquity, not only in the landscape but also in the kinds of social interactions that give the novel its direction. A journalist over here in the UK described Elmet as ‘Gothic’. It’s not a label I thought about much while writing it, but on reflection I think it fits perfectly.
Above, I mentioned Yorkshire’s literary heritage, including Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Dracula. These novels are gothic because that which has been buried (either literally or allegorically) comes back to life. Likewise, Elmet is all about the thrall of the past.
What is next for you and your writing career?
While trying to finish my PhD, I am also in the middle of a second novel. It is going to be very different in style and tone, although it shares some overarching themes with Elmet. I also have a third one planned, which will be different again. But I am trying to concentrate on one thing at a time and not get ahead of myself. I have a horrible tendency to pursue multiple projects and fail to get anything done!