The author of the bestselling When God was a Rabbit and A Year of Marvellous Ways returns to familiar themes in her third novel Tin Man (Tinder Press, £7.99) but transports readers to working-class Oxford to tell the story of Ellis, an artist who has channelled his talents into a life of trade work and suppressed much more along the way.
What inspired the character of Ellis?
The ideas came like this: a working-class man who is a talented artist. A man restricted by choice and opportunity, and destined to work in the car factory as his father did. A father who had the same lack of choice and education. A father who went to war and came back changed. A father who, due to his own shame, can’t encourage his son but harbours an unconscious desire to defeat him.
Dora believes that men and boys are capable of beautiful things at a time when an interest in art might have been viewed as feminine. Are these attitudes consigned to the past?
No, not completely because they are part of patriarchal thinking – the belief that feminine energy in a man is effeminate – so wherever that dominates, then the burden remains.
Are panel beating and other trades like it a lost art and how has the automation of many jobs like this affected working-class culture?
These skills are not honoured. They had a place and the people had a place. We don’t make things the way we used to in this country. The handing down of knowledge and a way of life are becoming obsolete, where once they brought security, pride and community. Where does this knowledge and skill go? How can it be channelled into something else creative and vital?
What could better access to art and culture do for working-class or poor communities and how can they be engaged?
It could do exactly what it does for wealthy and privileged communities and that is to bring enjoyment and meaning to life. We cannot place the burden of creative education onto parents who have had no access to this themselves. Parents who are holding down two or three jobs often do not have the time or money to take their children to libraries, art galleries, concert halls or theatre – comfortable domains of the middle classes. State schools need to provide arts education. They need to make theatres and galleries and art spaces accessible to children who would not usually enter them. Children should be taught creativity through drama, art and music, and storytelling. It is vital for imagination and for self-expression – a gateway to empathy and problem solving. Putting on a play – whether on stage or backstage – can educate young people about working in a team, improvisation, community. Without a committed arts programme in state schools, talent cannot thrive or be encouraged. Teaching young people how to express themselves is necessary in the battle against mental health issues. To deprive working class children of access to art and culture is to deny them the opportunity to participate in something that could bring meaning and purpose to their world. It could be vital in believing yourself to be more than your circumstance.
Like your previous novels landscape is integral to Tin Man, but you have moved from rural Cornwall to urban Oxford. Did this impact on your writing style?
Not really. My writing style is impacted more by character – character’s voice (literally), circumstance, psychology and point of view. Marvellous Ways is a feminine novel, rich with description and metaphor and poetry because it is about Marvellous’s life: The fantastic, triumphant version she has created for herself. Part fact part fiction. The version of a life she can live with. In Tin Man, I am dealing with a working-class man shut down by grief. There is purpose, but little meaning to his life. His every day is literal, and so is the writing. There is not room for an explosion of description. He gets up, he washes, he goes to work, comes home, sleeps. Only memory comes alive. The spare style mirrors the sparseness of his inner life.
Like The Goldfinch and The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Tin Man uses a painting – Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – as its starting point. Why do you think writers, whose images reside in the imagination, are continually fascinated by these visual artifacts?
Because we are writing about characters who are fascinated by these images. There is a potency to a painting’s following. People make art meaningful. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is one of the most recognised and well-loved paintings in the world, so is instantly recognisable. It has become its own myth, fuelled by a once extortionate auction price and a story of madness and self-harm. In Tin Man, the Sunflowers is the motif that runs through the book. The painting represents journeying towards the sun and light, and finding one’s truth. My character, Dora, wins a copy of the painting in a raffle in 1950. She chooses that as her prize because she remembers seeing the original on a school trip in her teens. She remembers how she felt when she walked into the room. How she wanted a life of art, and beauty, and travel. She is now in her thirties and trapped by the restraints of class, and those longed-for opportunities have never come her way. The painting hangs – almost – as a religious icon on the wall. It is a reminder of hope and belief, and all she once was. It is a reminder of who she still is, and what she is capable of.
In our last Q&A you quoted Tony Benn who said: “Youth have two fires ablaze in their hearts – one is hope for the future of the world, the other is anger at injustice”. You added that “an old person must fan the flames of both” yet recent democratic votes have highlighted a huge divide between young and old. Can art and literature help bridge the generation gap?
There has always been a huge divide between young and old. The things I know that art and literature have the capacity to do are to increase empathy and understanding, challenge rightness and ideas, and provide new information and a new landscape. That is a good starting point. These are challenging times, but also exciting times for politics and the arts. And for the young. As Patti Smith says: “Seek out that which magnifies your spirit.”