The Pram in the Hallway
Helen Walsh interviewed by Kerry Ryan.
Helen Walsh’s debut, Brass won the Betty Trask prize in 2005 and her follow-up, Once Upon a Time in England –an unflinching portrayal of the devastating impact of rape, racism and poverty on one family–won the Somerset Maugham Prize in 2009. Walsh has never shirked from examining the messier, murkier aspects of human existence, and her latest novel, Go to Sleep, holds the largely unwritten subject of postnatal sleep deprivation up to the light. Walsh depicts a nightmarish, hallucinatory world of fractured existence and extreme emotion which many will relate to. As always, she writes with purity and precision, skewering contemporary constructions of race, class and motherhood while unintentionally encouraging the robust use of reliable contraception.
3:AM: How did the experience of writing Go to Sleep compare with Brass and Once Upon a Time in England?
Helen Walsh: The novel started life as a fictional collection of suicide notes which I had no real ambition for other than the immediate and cathartic function they served at the time. There is very little evidence of those bleak and early outpourings in the finished novel, but I think Go To Sleep is underpinned by a quiet desperation that reflects my own experience of early motherhood. I wrote it in a fever, I was desperate to put something down for posterity, to capture the way I saw the world before my mental state shifted which it did dramatically twelve months down the line.
3:AM: Were any particular writers influential when you were writing Go to Sleep or was the struggle to find credible portraits of mothers and motherhood the impetus for the novel?
HW: When I told an editor at Canongate I was writing a novel about a new mother who goes off-piste through lack of sleep she sent me a copy of Charlotte Perkin Gilmore’s The Yellow Wallpaper. It’s a beautiful and unsettling account of post-partum psychosis. I think Go To Sleep is equally unsettling, but I wanted Rachel’s story to be more universal. Just like when I wrote Brass, I felt there to be a dearth in contemporary fiction of honest portrayals of female sexuality, part of the impetus behind Go To Sleep, was that as a reader, I found there to be an absence of books that dealt with those darker aspects of postnatal illness. However, Go To Sleep is not so much a novel about psychosis or postnatal struggle but an anthem for sleep-starved mothers all over the world.
3:AM: Cyril Connolly‘s assertion that the pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art is obviously misogynistic bollocks and Go to Sleep and thousands of other novels are the proof. But since you’ve become a mother has there been a change in how you see the world and what you want to write about?
HW: Cyril Connolly also wrote that success and private schools are the enemies of good art, but these factors – far more potent than the pram in the hallway – are rarely referred to which says a lot about our culture and how we perceive the relationship between parenthood and art. I think as a mother now, I am at my most fecund as a writer. Obviously, creativity has to be harnessed and organised to an extent, but the pram in the hallway has proved my biggest inspiration to date. I also love the grounding my son gives me. He is the only distraction that I can justify and that I feel good about, and especially when he appears in the doorway of my study wielding his little dimple smile. It’s impossible to be floored by bad reviews or the squalid sensation of knowing that your day’s writing has gone badly and been in vain, when you have kids buzzing around you. But equally, children give you a sense of your own mortality, and I think there is an urgency in my writing that might not have existed before I had my son.
3:AM: As you said, you wrote Go To Sleep as ‘an anthem for sleep-starved mothers all over the world’, so what’s the response been like?
HW: I’ve received hundreds of letters from mothers – some of them grandmothers, but for whom the experience of early motherhood is still raw. You get an enormous sense of gratification when you see readers responding to your book in a certain way – and it’s good to know that the catharsis I received in writing the story has in some way translated into a cathartic reading experience.
3:AM: Were you concerned about the inevitable blurring of your own experience with that of your main character, Rachel’s?
HW: No, not really, but the decision to promote the book was very much a political one. I did think about sitting back and hiding behind the mask of fiction and letting my publishers promote the book for me – I was terrified of going back to that very dark space in which Go To Sleep was conceived – but equally I knew it would be irresponsible to send a book like that out there and just leave it hanging. I wrote the book because I felt that motherhood imposed a kind of silence on me, there were certain aspects of the experience that remained taboo, unspoken – and I wanted to smash that silence wide open. So it would have been morally and politically wrong, hypocritical in a way, to not speak out about the subject matter of Go To Sleep
3:AM: In a review of Ross Raisin‘s Waterline, Alan Warner talks of a ‘sly, unspoken literary prejudice’ against working class lives and characters in contemporary UK fiction. In Go to Sleep, Rachel Massey is middle class, but she works in a community centre in a working class area of Liverpool, and the novel contains several non-stereotypical working class characters. Do you agree with Alan Warner? Were you conscious of working against this ‘literary prejudice’ when you were writing Go to Sleep?
HW: It’s interesting that few have picked up on the unspoken class and, to an extent, race prejudice that exists in Go To Sleep. Rachel’s ostensibly middle class father, for example, sees himself as a liberal-minded, Guardian reading lefty. He is unabashedly seduced by black culture, and in a very voyeuristic way too – the music, the cuisine, the way of life. And yet his liberalism is somewhat compromised when it concerns his own daughter. He finds 13-year-old Rachel alone with a young black guy, Ruben, at an Afro-Caribbean carnival, and he immediately draws his own conclusions about Ruben which are ultimately coloured by the fact that he is a black guy from Liverpool 8.
Prior to writing, I worked in a literary agency in London, and I was acutely and horribly aware of the prejudice against working class lives and characters in contemporary UK fiction. The ‘taste setters’– the agents, junior agents and readers who are the first point of call for manuscripts – are largely upper middle class, as are most of the editors working in British publishing today. This raises questions then about the non-varied and class-dimensional reading of manuscripts, and the extent to which such readings reflect and pander to an upper middle class sensibility.
3:AM: In a recent feature about class in fiction, Ian Haywood states that “the term working-class writer has always been something of an oxymoron because at the point at which this writer gets published, they must have moved away from their original circumstances”. Do you agree?
HW: Yes, although that shouldn’t impinge on the writer’s ability to depict those ‘working class’ worlds authentically. Sometimes, I think, it’s necessary even to step outside of the world you are depicting in order to see it more objectively.
3:AM: You mentioned that you’ve learned to ‘let go’ of novels and turn them into short stories if they’re not working out. Is this how most of your short stories begin? Initially as novel ideas? And can we expect a short story collection soon?
HW: Probably not. But I do love writing short stories, not least because on a thematic level you have more freedom than the novel. Most of my short stories are dark, transgressive and queer, and involve deviant females living on the edge of society – and I doubt they would have ever been published as novels. They certainly wouldn’t make the Three for Two summer promotions.
3:AM: So whose short stories do you rate?
HW: All short stories start with Anton Chekhov. I also love the short stories of J.D. Salinger and Kate Chopin. In terms of more contemporary writers… Laura Hird’s Nail, Mary Gaitskill‘s Because They Wanted To and David Means‘ Assorted Fire Events are among my favourites.
3:AM: You mentioned a fourth novel?
HW: It’s a radical departure from Go To Sleep. I’ve not been able to write for a few weeks as I’ve been knee deep in book promotion, and I’ve really missed my characters – which is always a good sign.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Kerry Ryan is a short story writer, novelist and 3:AM Co-Editor.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 1st, 2011.