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A Torrent of Stories: An Interview with Anna Vaught

Anna Vaught interviewed by Katy Wimhurst.

Katy Wimhurst: You began writing fiction relatively recently, I think, and have quickly had several books published. Can you say something about your path into fiction and why telling stories is important?

Anna Vaught: My path into fiction? Reading. Getting started? It’s boringly simple: I wanted to write a memoir and I just sat down one day at my kitchen table and started and since then, it has been a torrent: a lot of the stories were already in my head. I just did not yet have the confidence or courage to tell them. Telling stories is important because there is always another story and another way of reading and thinking about things: they can be transformative, I think, for both the writer and reader.

3:AM: The novel Saving Lucia (2020) tells the story of four women who existed historically, including Lucia Joyce and Lady Violet Gibson, and who were branded hysterical and institutionalised. But it blurs the line between fact and fiction and in the second half, the historical falls away, the speculative taking over. The four women take a journey through the places and times of their lives, including to Violet’s attempt to kill Mussolini in Rome, and to Paris; events are rewritten imaginatively, so the assassination attempt succeeds and the four women also break into the neurologist Charcot’s house in Paris and enjoy a wild feast there. What drew you to choosing this speculative form, this exuberant alternative history, for the story, and what do you think it offers that more straightforward historical reconstruction can’t?

AV: I think I wanted to look at the experiments and adventures you can have in your mind. Through reading and the worlds you go into, new horizons you cross and doors into being you go though. Then, I wanted to think about how the role of the imagination is, as I knew from personal experience, a vital and fecund place when there is nowhere else you can go. So I wanted to imagine the interior worlds and also, because I knew something of their confinements, imagine possible freedoms for them, too. I could not do that without an alternative history and the exuberance is part of the mayhem, the joy and the release.

3:AM: A key meditation of the novel is: what is madness, who is mad here? Are these women really insane? Is their distress a reaction to their incarceration, prescribed drugs and lack of an outlet for their intelligence, or even to their life experiences? Have they been labelled as mad because they don’t conform to what this society expects of women? Both Lucia and Violet state at one time, ‘I am not mad’. Bertha says: ‘Define ‘well’. Then ‘mad’. I challenge you’. Did you intend the novel to offer nuanced answers to these questions about madness or is the main purpose of art to ask them?

AV: I think it is only one purpose of art, more broadly, but as for the book, yes, I did intend to offer some nuanced answers. One is that how we define madness may be subjective; based on our politics, the time in which we exist, our culture and context. Is Mussolini, violent, appropriative, liar, man with hand grenades on his desk and pulling the pins out and replacing them for fun, is he sane? Is Violet, in attempting to take off such a man, insane? But I also ask you, as reader, just to ponder because there is so much, still, we do not know about the human mind. Also, it is exceptionally difficult to understand and communicate our own psychology, shifting patterns of thought or responses, so it is so much more difficult to understand and translate the interior world of the other. In my own life, I have had, within the same system, multiple diagnoses to no diagnosis; I have been called ill and had this doubted.

3:AM: Many of your stories in fact deal with matters of mental health. What are you hoping your readers will learn or take away from your fiction that deals with this theme? As you have been open about the fact that you personally have suffered from mental health issues, does writing about this subject make you feel exposed or vulnerable at all?

AV: A few questions there. What do I hope readers will take away in terms of thinking about mental health? That mental health problems belong to everyone, to the creative, the brilliant, the cosmopolitan, the disenfranchised, the lonely, the everyone. That mental health problems may take unexpected forms and carry with them an unusual energy or productivity — which is NOT the same as saying they are good to have. I mean that in my case, for example, long and complex trauma has resulted in a host of things for me to deal with but, in coping, I have developed an absolute reliance on my imagination and fed that into my writing. Does that make sense? I want readers to be open minded about mental illness and mental health problems.

You also ask whether, as someone who has experienced and continues to experience challenges, do I feel exposed or vulnerable? Sometimes, but I know from what readers write to me and tell me that it is worth it and this makes me feel brave. I am not scared of speaking about my own history; in fact, I insist on it in order to provoke discussion, shed light sometimes on the paucity of resources in the UK and also to keep pricking at stigma, making open discussion easier for the next person. Because people are frightened of being thought weak, weird or mad. I am not frightened of that, partly because nothing is as frightening to me as what I went through and partly because helping to embolden others has, as I noted above, made me feel more brave.

Connected with this, however, I do want to make a couple of important points. With Saving Lucia, I DID struggle with some elements of the way in which the book was portrayed and, quite frankly, some narratives that were developed around me. I felt my story was being stolen. Having felt misprised and traduced when I was a child and young person, this was immensely triggering. So, I do think we need to be aware of how we feel and how we might be treated and to be able to have open conversations about that. Second: agents, publishers and publicists need to be able to have conversations with their authors if, for example, they have a trauma background because they may be vulnerable. It has been an emancipating thing — and I would like to say this publicly — that my agent and my agency make me feel looked after, while, at the same time, nudging me to do the work because they believe I can do it. That is, I am not lesser because I am a person managing chronic difficulty.

3:AM: Saving Lucia attests to how you are a stylist as a writer, attuned to the sound and rhythm of language; some sections of the novel, especially those involving Violet, read like stream of consciousness. At one point, Violet says, ‘I know I can be disjointed, or at least seem so. But my imagination is violent and necessary because my freedom was taken away’. How important was this prose style for the novel and was it tricky in any way for you to write Violet’s voice in particular?

AV: I sat and tried to hear Violet after reading all I could and researching as much as possible. I thought she was funny, clever and poetic and I loved writing her. Or my version of her. But the way in which thoughts and ideas are expressed is not, as some have thought, intended as an expression of madness, of non-sequitur or jumble; no: this, instead, is energy. It is richly-textured and bold language. I did not find it difficult writing her voice in particular, though whether I was successful or not is a matter for you. By the way, I do write things in the hope that they will be read aloud and there is deliberate rhythm, cadence and sound patterning in my sentences. I read all my writing aloud, too: I hope others will and enjoy doing so.

3:AM: Famished is a series of seventeen very short stories around the theme of food, many with supernatural or magical realist elements, too. A concern with social class runs through some of the stories. In ‘Choracle’, the ‘avocado on sourdough’ middle-class mums look down on Donna who eats cheesy wotsits and pickled eggs. In ‘Shame’, the protagonist’s husband calls her ‘common’ and a ‘lard-arse’ for her love of eating nutella from the jar and devouring bags of licorice. Can you tell me why class is important to you and why food can be a way to map it in fiction?

AV: I suppose I am the first generation of middle class people in my family; both sides of mine were rural working class and, particularly on my father’s side, there was poverty. So I see and feel things as part of my heritage and I am immensely proud of it all. Then, I live in a predominantly middle class area and do not feel at home with a lot of it! Finally, one thing that makes me very punchy indeed is snobbery and a sense of superiority. First, because I know that your — what? — ascension into the middle classes may well dampen your cultural energy and vivacity, which I see first hand and regularly parse in my own family history. Second, because it is just plain mean and food is quite a divider, isn’t it? Food and fancy food. What’s posh and what’s a bit common. I cannot bear food snobbery. It makes me spit.

3:AM: I love stories wherein the magical is rooted in the mundane and several of your stories hit the mark with this perfectly. In ‘Sherbet’, Geraint attains a kind of spiritual bliss whilst eating a licorice sherbet dip and begins prophesying. In ‘Choracle’, a kind of oracle appears within the chocolate fountain. Why does this kind of magical realism appeal and what does it offer you as a writer than realism doesn’t?

AV: Well, maybe I see magic everywhere. To me the world often looks like magical realism, if that makes sense? I think the arcane, the spiritual, the miraculous and the numinous are there in the ordinary as well in a hallowed or exalted place. I like to find beauty in ugly places and a story unfolding in the darkness and watch for stories emerging out of the corner of my eye. Also, exceptionally strange things — at least to the beholder — are often true, because people are weird; magnificently so. I like both magical realism and realism, but particularly enjoy the dreamscape quality of the former.

3:AM: Rebelliousness and resisting abuse runs through several of your short stories. In ‘A Tale of Tripe’, Catherine fights back against her painful memory of abuse by her mother and grandmother (who shut her in the pantry and forced her to eat badly-prepared tripe) by cooking this food in an exquisite French cuisine style, so she can enjoy it once more. In ‘Shame’, the main character deliberately eats those foods her patronising husband looks down on and eventually finds happiness with someone who shares her ‘lowbrow’ pleasures. Does fiction lend itself to becoming a conduit for ideas about resistance? Just how subversive can fiction really be?

AV: Yes, of course fiction lends itself to writing about resistance. It always has. Resistance is overt and more subtle, arrived at, perhaps, in stages of recognition (which is, in fact, partly what my new novel is about). Fiction can be hugely subversive, rattling cages and re-examining, can it not? It’s also subversive for the writer. If you have experienced abuse or feeling frightened or suppressed over a long period, I can absolutely assure you that both in subject matter and the loud, bold, animated interplay of words, it is rebellion. I need a very firm-handed editor though. Possible scissors. Or some mighty shears.

3:AM: You use Twitter imaginatively to talk about writing and to engage with your readers and other writers. In what ways can social media be a useful tool for writers?

AV: In my experience, Twitter has been how I have learned about the industry as well as other writers and resources. Remember that although my background is, essentially, books, I knew next to nothing about the publishing industry or what you did as a writer in order to get your work seen. This is how I have learned and also how I aim to support others and pay anything forward. There are so many people out there with extraordinary talent and they have had their lives upended by chronic illness of whatever kind or simply — simply! — structural inequality. So, it is through Twitter that I try to engage with people in order to encourage them and how I have found ways into the industry to offer practical resources — like the couple of bursaries I made and my free reads. So a writer can find all that, or just some of it. Twitter is a great way to find a tribe and evolve that around you and perhaps a writing group, too. However, it can be immensely stressful, so it is important to curate it, steering clear of accounts, keywords and so on. Even then, it’s imperfect. I want to add that if it makes you miserable — if social media makes you feel miserable full stop — limit it or excise it, though I think that’s easier once you have a higher profile and have an agent, publisher and publicist advocating for you. I rarely use my writing facebook page — perhaps I ought to? — but also enjoy and use Instagram for bookish things, and attend Instagram Live events or hold them; I will do more. Clearly there is plenty of potential work to do on Tiktok and others, but I am ND, manage quite a lot and I have made it a rule to focus on a small number of things, otherwise I know I will feel overwhelmed. But each to their own!

About the interviewee
Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, short fiction writer, editor and a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor to young people, mental health advocate and mum of 3. 2020 saw the publication of Anna’s third novel, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose Books) and a first short story collection, Famished (Influx). Anglo-Welsh, she splits her time between Wiltshire, Wales, and the Southern US. Anna’s essays, reviews, articles, and features have been featured widely online and in print. She has just completed another novel with a novella and first non-fiction book on their way.

About the interviewer
Katy Wimhurst’s first collection of short stories, Snapshots of the Apocalypse, is to be published by Fly on the Wall Press. Her fiction has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. Her visual poems have appeared (or are soon to) in magazines including 3:AM, Ric Journal, Steel Incisors, The Babel Tower and AngelHouse Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 27th, 2021.