Catriona Ward is the author of two novels, Rawblood (from 2015) and Little Eve, which was published this summer. I first interviewed Ward on 4th February 2016 for the Oxford Writing Circle, in the dark and now sadly gone Albion Beatnik Bookstore; I even recorded a terrible quality video of the interview (thankfully Ward’s intelligence and wit is of a much higher standard). Here, I am publishing an edited transcript of that interview. Whilst much has moved on since we met in Oxford, this interview should at least provide some nostalgic interest.
Peter Meinertzhagen: Can you tell me a little bit about your book, Rawblood?
Catriona Ward:It’s told in interconnecting narratives, most of them first person, of a family who live in a house on Dartmoor called Rawblood. The narratives move between 1840 and 1919, and the premise is that the Villarca family who live there are haunted and visited, taken, killed by a white ghostly woman who visits you if you fall in love, if you marry or if you have children. So of necessity, the line just dwindles and dwindles and dwindles until we open in the first section set in 1910 which is just a father and his daughter, who live alone at Rawblood. And from then on you see how she negotiates the curse and how she avoids it, or doesn’t, in fact, avoid it. You’ll see.
PM: Where did the idea for the book come from?
CW: I’ve always had a real love for this kind of literature. The first impulse I think that created it was this: I’ve moved round a lot during my life – my father used to work for the Royal Bank – I grew up in Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen and Morocco, and the one point of continuity in my life was that we used to go back to this cottage on Dartmoor, which was absolutely beautiful, very isolated, just below Hameldown, and to me it was very exotic.
It was a strange place to be after living in the tropics, but I loved it, not least because it was somewhere I knew would always be a constant. But almost every night I was there I would wake up with a hand in the small of my back pushing me out of bed, and I’d go and sleep in my sister’s room.
This happened almost every night that I was there and it was only one time that I think it manifested visually, which was just very strange: I woke up and there was this almost pulsing red thing in front of my eyes. The experience was remarkable – not that it seemed to bring any knowledge of anything like any afterlife but – and I don’t think you need to believe in ghosts to know what I’m talking about – this completely, animal, all-encompassing fear.
When I first, metaphorically, picked up a pen in my late twenties, that was what came. And I’d completely forgotten about this experience. Someone told me once that you set your first novel where your dreams are set and certainly that experience had made its way so far into my subconscious that I hadn’t even realised I remembered it.
PM: So this experience made a strong impression on how you wrote Rawblood?
CW: It did, but in a way, it felt like it had nothing to do with it, if that makes any sense? It was something which seemed so uninformative and completely useless in terms of forming any ideas. All it really communicated was the fear. What was amazing about that was when I read my first “proper” ghost story, which was ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W. W. Jacobs (which is absolutely terrifying if you haven’t read it), the fear that I felt at the climax of that story was capturing the fear that I felt in the night, and I instantly went ‘Ah, this is it, this is the conduit, this is the conduit through which we funnel this weird primeval fear’.
PM: And that’s the feeling you want to replicate in your reader?
CW: Yeah, very unkind really! But yeah, that’s exactly it.
PM: You must have read a lot in the gothic ghost story tradition.
CW: Absolutely, I have. I love the gothic for its scope, it’s very Shakespearean. It’s fall-on-your-sword stuff. And the discussion that this early 19th century form has isn’t obsolete; the dialogue is about power, it’s about fear, it’s about the subjugation of women, it’s about all sorts of things which are still incredibly relevant. It’s not a dead form by any means.
PM: Is it a form you’ve studied?
CW: I did the Creative Writing Masters at UEA about four years ago now, and they’d make you do a full English MA alongside the creative writing and they had Victor Sage teaching who single-handedly, in the 60s, brought the study of gothic to the popular domain. The gothic had been sidelined into this big catch-all genre – “genre” – which is basically the word people use to describe something they don’t think is very good. I studied with him and he was just amazing. But there was a huge difficulty in getting texts. You simply couldn’t buy any of the books he was asking us to read, they were all out of print and very esoteric.
PM: There’s been a bit of a resurgence in the ghost story, hasn’t there?
CW: It’s something which I think is indubitably true. I don’t know whether it’s that publishers are ready to accept the ghost story or if it’s just now they’re finding an audience or whether actually there’s a strange sort of seismic move in the collective unconscious where everybody just starts writing ghost stories. I don’t know which it is, but what’s really nice is that the ghost story has been lifted gently out of that genre catch-all and brought back into the grace of literature, which is lovely because, to be honest that’s where it belongs and some of the finest writers in English have turned their hand to the ghost story and it’s a very venerable and expressive form.
PM: Are there any particular writers you drew inspiration from?
CW: Absolutely. With Rawblood it’s like a bit of a skipping stone across the genre, it sort of lands in each part. There was one text for each section, stylistically, that I chose as a sort of inspiration. For instance, in the Charles Danforth Victorian doctors section, it was the diary sections in Dracula. That was my model and it was really helpful, that slightly pompous, self-deluding, unreliable diary, narrative form.
There’s an Italian section which is written very Austen-like; Austen wrote one of the most charming riffs on the Gothic, Northanger Abbey, and that section is my Northanger Abbey. Then in the 1910s section there would be a bit of Robert Aickman, Unsettled Dust, although he was a bit earlier, the slight edge towards modernity.
PM: Science is a theme that comes up a lot in Rawblood. Do you have any background in this area?
CW: No, none at all. I basically just researched and researched and researched to make sure it’s told in a credible way. You’ve got this incredibly interesting intersect at this period of time where science isn’t a discrete discipline in people’s minds, it becomes part of the study of man, and of God, which is why Frankenstein is such a good example of it, because that is such a perfect fusion of man playing God and also using science to do it. There’s a wonderful resource, the British Medical Journal, which has digitised all its archives, it’s absolutely amazing.
Digitised all its archives from 1850, so you can just go Google it and there’s scans of everything. If you just Google ‘syphilis’ – which believe me I did – then it’ll bring up all sorts of articles. And what was wonderful was the letters page. The letters page of the BMJ is fantastic. You see that science is a discourse, it’s a discourse of personalities, and again, it’s just on the cusp of pushing over into all of the great scientific discoveries of the 20th century but you’re not there yet, you’re still lingering, you still have people who believe that if you’d create a giant fan in Cheapside in order to dispel the air, it would stop cholera spreading. It’s an amazing intersection of time, and I was just completely gripped by that because nobody really knew anything but they were just about to.
PM: You studied here in Oxford, didn’t you?
CW: I did! I did English at St. Edmund Hall which is just down the High. I think it was Graham Greene who put a whole nation of people off doing English by saying ‘If you do an English degree it means you’ll never be a writer’. I don’t think that’s true, but after I did my undergraduate, I did find that I didn’t write anything for a long time. I think that’s because you almost get too much respect for the canon. You feel too timid to intrude upon it. You have such respect and such awe inculcated in you for these people that you feel that you can’t write anything yourself. But, at the same time, the best teaching of any writing is other great writers. To do that degree was invaluable as well.
PM: If you could go back to when you were first writing Rawblood, what advice would you give yourself?
CW: Oh, get to the point. If it doesn’t serve the narrative, don’t write it. You’re writing a story. And also, while writing for yourself is amazing, ultimately if you are writing to be read you have to think of the reader as well and you have to have their needs in mind. Don’t underestimate the importance of plot.
PM: What’s your next novel about?
CW: Rawblood is a hymn to the ghost story so this is…it’s a bit different. It has elements of the golden age of the murder mystery in it. It’s set in 1928, in a castle on an island off the coast of Scotland, and the main character is a cocaine-addicted lesbian who may or may not have murdered her entire family. We don’t know. Honestly the Twenties are full of lesbians and cocaine.
PM: Besides ‘get to the point’, is there any other advice you’d give to up-and-coming writers?
CW: One thing that I definitely forgot to do was enjoy it. I forgot to enjoy it, for long periods of time. But it’s that fusion of your joy and skill in the craft that makes good prose. So just be confident, enjoy it, doesn’t matter if it’s wrong, you’ll edit it later.
Rawblood written by Catriona Ward is published by W&N. Buy the book.