Author Q&A: Sofka Zinovieff

Putney (Bloomsbury, £14.99/Audible, £18.99) 

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Daphne is just a child when she is seduced by Ralph, a 25-year-old composer. Even in the bohemian abandon of 1970s London they know they must keep their relationship secret. Moving between then and the present day, Putney follows Daphne as she faces up to the truth of her past.  

Would it make a difference to the story if the characters had been, rom a working-class community in inner-city Leeds rather than the cultured, middle-class and worldly types you portray in Putney?
Child sexual abuse is not limited to certain classes or social sectors. It can happen amongst the most privileged people in our society and the most vulnerable. Of course, the story and characters in Putney would be different if they were from a working-class community in Leeds, but the issues would remain the same. My characters belong to a specific milieu, which is one that I am more familiar with and believed I could make authentic. I also enjoyed having some of the characters believing they are marvellously cultured and sophisticated, while behaving so abominably.

How did you find the voice of Ralph?
Ralph needed to be a charismatic, talented charmer for the story to work. He seduces Daphne’s parents – at least metaphorically – as well as Daphne. I also wanted him to “groom” the reader a bit as well, so that we are pulled along by his narcissistic emotions and justifications. I find black and white “goodies and baddies” dull and enjoy books where I am pulled inside the mind of someone complex, who can be both despicable and likeable in different ways.

At the time of the abuse Ralph and Daphne both saw their relationship as a forbidden but genuine love. Do you think that can ever be possible?
I know it can happen. I’ve heard enough stories from other people and from experts to know that youngsters who are sexually abused do not always see it as a crime, especially when it occurred in the past. I rarely discuss Putney with a woman of my generation without hearing about some related incident or inappropriate relationship in her past or concerning someone she knew. According to the law, love makes absolutely no difference – genuine or not. An underage person is unable to give their consent. However, reality is not always so tidy. Daphne is vulnerable to Ralph’s obsessive passion for her. And while he, as an adult, should know better, she, like many adolescent girls, is also undergoing her own hormonal turmoil. The flattering attentions of an older man can produce emotions that feel like love.

Daphne’s realisation about the truth of her relationship with Ralph is prompted by her response to her own daughter’s emerging sexuality. Has motherhood reframed the way you view events in your own life?
I have two daughters, so inevitably this has influenced me, although Putney is not my story. I think I understood a great deal about my own childhood and youth when I witnessed the different lives my children had at similar ages. I’m intrigued by how young girls begin to experiment with the accoutrements of womanhood, like makeup or sexy clothes, while they are still basically children. It’s sometimes unsettling to witness, because they seem to cross back and forth between childhood and adulthood.

In a youth-obsessed society that touts skinny, girlish bodies as the feminine ideal, where schoolgirl outfits and lollipops are still erotic images, and where female sexual innocence is still valued, can we be surprised that child sexual exploitation is as widespread as we are beginning to understand it to be?
No, it’s hardly surprising at all. But it is awful. The thing that has given me greatest hope is the attitude of many young women, who are much less accepting of this system. Their antennae are attuned to abusive behaviour and to the exploitation of girls and women. So, although the stereotypes and imagery are not changing quickly enough, I feel a glimmer of optimism.

Daphne’s childhood friend Jane’s voice offers the clear-sighted view on an otherwise morally ambiguous tale. Were you tempted to leave that out and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions?
No. Jane felt to me like a necessary counterbalance to the delirium felt by Daphne and Ralph. It’s true that Jane is sometimes like a cold shower raining on their passionate parade, but I think the book is already treading a dangerous line. Jane was also necessary as a witness – not just to the relationship, but to how Daphne and Ralph appeared on the outside in the heady 1970s.

What’s your opinion of Lolita and was your Russian heritage influential in your decision to write a modern day version of Nabokov’s controversial novel?
I adore Nabokov and read much of his work, including Lolita, at a young age. My Russian heritage on my father’s side probably did influence me to read a lot of Russian literature – in translation – and it feels like an important element of my identity. You can’t escape the influence of Lolita, but Putney was not envisaged as a modern-day version or a reaction to it – that label came later. I did re-read Nabokov’s extraordinary masterpiece recently and was far more shocked by Humbert Humbert’s deep immorality than before – the girl herself is given so little agency and is basically just an object of obsessive lust. In our era, Lolita is perhaps even harder to read than when it was first banned in the 1950s.

What do your anthropology background and non-fiction writing bring to your fiction?
My research as an anthropologist gave me the bug for being fascinated by other people’s lives. It also taught me how to suspend judgement in order to understand someone else – allowing Ralph to sometimes be sympathetic would have been much harder without this background. My fieldwork was carried out in Greece, and there were times when I interviewed and spent time with objectionable individuals so that I could learn the opposite side to an argument. Later, I worked as a journalist and started off writing non-fiction books. Both these things helped me learn how to research a novel and with the nuts and bolts of writing – above all, how to edit yourself so only the significant bits go in.

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