Will Cohu has turned his hand to journalism, a memoir, a natural history book and now a novel. Set in his native Lincolnshire, Nothing But Grass (Chatto & Windus, £16.99) interweaves a Victorian tale in a Gothic manor with a modern-day mystery.
Was your writing career always geared towards fiction?
I’ve been writing more than 20 years and I’ve always been learning. Though I’m motivated very much by emotion and feelings, I’ve also always been drawn to the technical aspect of writing – how you use words to create a world. For a long time I was really into building gardens and walls – I think of writing like that. It may produce magic but you have to make a space in which that can occur. After university I worked in the theatre as an administrator and director and was fascinated by scenes and dialogue. Journalism and non-fiction allowed me to explore ways to evoke a physical environment and develop narrative. I love books, all books. But my objective was always fiction. The novel is an amazing form; it can go in so many ways. It’s not dead. It’s only just begun. And what’s better than a book? It’s a world in your pocket, a cinema that requires nothing more than the reader to bring it alive. As Neil Gaiman says, it’s an empathy machine. It has taken time to get a novel published. This is my third attempt, I think, though I’ve had some success with non-fiction and short stories.
Is your literary style informed by your journalism or an attempt to break away from it?
As I said, it can all be part of a learning process. I actually haven’t written journalism for a long time, but books don’t pay the way and after some financially disastrous years not earning much in the countryside I do communications work. I was lucky to work in broadsheet journalism in the 1990s when there was interest in writers and decent pay. ihe Internet has changed things.
“It began with a strongly political enquiry about the conservatism of people who had historically suffered so much”
How has your natural history knowledge shaped Nothing But Grass?
Hugely. Everything you learn about life is useful to a novel. I’m not naturally an urban creature and I feel the natural world intensely. It’s the tension between anthropomorphism– the pathetic fallacy – and seeing things as they are that makes for interesting nature writing. It’s tension that makes all writing interesting.
Why do you think Lincolnshire remains staunchly conservative despite poverty and how has this fed into Nothing But Grass?
Nothing But Grass is a romance – in the sense that it has mystery and love, and I hope, entertaining Gothic aspects – but it began with a strongly political enquiry about the bewilderment I experienced as a teenager with the conservatism of people who had historically suffered so much. I think that conservatism is to do with the historic legacy of rural workers. Their homes were tied to jobs and if they lost these they would be walking the lanes, and there was rarely a shortage of labour to allow them leverage with their employers. Only in the aftermath of war or disease could rural workers exercise any influence over their fates. I think it led to a feudal mind-set; you don’t upset the world you know.
If Lincolnshire has a regional identity, what are its traits?
It’s a place of immense, and often lonely beauty. Huge skies that make one feel rather child-like. The boundaries have blurred between sky and land and sea, between the real and illusory. It’s a place that tantalises with revelation, but is populated by kind, pragmatic and private people. It also produces intrepid travellers – people like Capt John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) and John Franklin.
Is Nothing But Grass influenced by Victorian literature?
Yes. It’s set between the 19th and 21st centuries. I loved Victorian novelists when I was a child – everything from Dickens to Harrison Ainsworth (now largely forgotten). But the book’s use of Gothic is playful so it’s also influenced by how modern writers have played with the genre – AS Byatt and John Fowles of course, or the excellent Sarah Waters and Andrew Taylor.