Author Q&A: Amy Arnold
Slip of a Fish (And Other Stories, £10)
Slip of a Fish (And Other Stories, £10)
Ash collects words, climbs trees and swims in a deserted lake with her beloved seven-year-old daughter Charlie. Over the course of one hot summer, Charlie begins to pull away and, in a desperate attempt to reconnect with her, Ash does something unforgivable. Slip of a Fish is the debut novel from Cumbria-based Arnold, and the winner of the 2018 Northern Book Prize.
You’re from Oxford but live in Cumbria. Is living in the Lakes more conducive to writing?
I was born in Oxford but didn’t start writing until I lived in Birmingham. I moved up to the Lakes a couple of years ago and was so busy exploring the fells that I hardly wrote a word for months. I have a pretty decent view of the Coniston Fells from my bedroom window. Sometimes the pull to be out there is so strong I have to shut my curtains to keep myself at my desk. I know a lot of local writers draw inspiration from this landscape. It takes time, years, to know a place. Until then I don’t think I’ll be writing about the Lakes.
What does wild swimming provide for the characters of A Slip of a Fish and have you tried it yourself?
I never thought of it as wild swimming – I just couldn’t imagine Ash swimming anywhere else. Suburban life smothers her. She always looks for ways to escape it and to escape herself. Water is her element. It’s where she becomes herself – uninhibited, untamed, and, ultimately, unravelled. I love swimming in the lakes and tarns up here and swam almost every day during the heatwave last summer. I’m definitely a fair-weather swimmer though and, unlike Ash, am more than happy to retreat to the local pool to swim lengths.
Ash is a collector of words but becomes increasingly mute. Is it a paradox that writers, as purveyors of words, are often solitary or insular characters?
Perhaps the paradox is that writers need to be alone to work. This can land them the label solitary. Loquaciousness with eloquence shouldn’t be confused though. Writers are purveyors of words, yes, but they constantly strive to find the “right” words for the story, poem, blog, song they’re writing. Silence – the words that have been deliberately left out – can be at least as powerful as the words that make it onto the page. So
I suppose writers can be all things: gregarious, solitary, chatty and – on rare occasions – boring. If they have one thing in common it might be an ability to be alone.
Are the linguistic gymnastics of the book a representation of the flexibility of truth or reality?
Not really. Ash’s relationship with language is complex. I think her fascination with words is a symptom of her mistrust of language and ultimately the people around her. She finds solace in words yet doesn’t trust them. The way she flips and plays with words, strips them of context, is, I think, a symptom of her mistrust. It’s almost a cry for help: how can I make sense of a world like this? When I was writing the book I was really taken by the idea of language as our means of navigating the world. We depend on communication for almost everything. I hope that exposing Ash’s difficulty with language allows us to show her some compassion.
Ash seems to conform to the idea that abusers were often victims first. If that’s the case why do we not hear of more female abusers?
Ash came to me as a very strong narrative voice. In fact, writing Slip of a Fish was sometimes a bit like taking dictation. I tried to be absolutely faithful to Ash – her story and her view of reality – and that meant writing with very little understanding of her past. I honestly don’t know if she was a victim first. Perhaps it isn’t important. Perhaps she didn’t want to think about it. I was aware that leaving gaps in her history would invite interpretation. We all like to guess why our friend, father, sister, neighbour behaves in one way or another, but we can never truly know when one behaviour acts as catalyst for another. It felt important to get the last words of the book down and still have uncertainty hanging in the air. What if we never really know why things like this happen?
Are Ash’s actions a rupture with nature or is nature more brutal than we like to believe?
Human relationships are complicated for Ash. She loves deeply but can’t communicate her love in a way that’s acceptable. Ash knows how to love the natural world. She understands its rhythms, she accepts its ephemerality and understands that all connections must eventually be broken. Having said that, drawing parallels between her behaviour and the brutality of the natural world should be done with caution. Humans, of course, must be held responsible for their actions.
Given the controversial subjects it tackles, were you wary to put out A Slip of a Fish and was entering it into the Northern Book Prize an attempt to test the waters?
I was wary about sending Slip of a Fish anywhere because I’d never shared any of my work before and I didn’t know if I could actually, you know, write. I knew it might elicit strong reactions, but writers never get to see how people respond to their work – reviews aside. I just thought, if they don’t like it they’ll put it to one side and get on with reading the next one in the pile. I guess it fell into the right pair of hands.
What advice do you have for anyone considering entering the Northern Book Prize this year?
It’s brave, a real leap of faith, to offer publication to an as yet unknown piece of work. Be brave too. If you’ve got a finished piece of work send it in. If you haven’t finished it yet, turn off the internet, turn off your phone and get working.