Mothlight (Influx Press, £9.99)
Mothlight (Influx Press, £9.99)
The debut novel from Merseyside writer Adam Scovell is a haunting tale about grief, memory and obsession. Thomas first meets Phyllis Ewans, a prominent researcher of moths, when he is a boy. Later in life, when he is researcher of moths himself, Thomas meets Phyllis again and becomes her companion and then carer. When Phyllis dies Thomas begins to delve into her life, drawn to a secret that seems contained in photographs he finds around her house. But as he goes deeper into her past he feels his own sense of self slipping away, unsure of what memories are his own.
You use real photographs within the novel. How did you come by these photographs and how did the pictures inform your writing?
I actually inherited them from an elderly lady that my grandmother looked after. I did know the characters in the book and, though they’re not who they were in real life, there’s certainly a lot of real elements in there. I’m really interested at the moment in how the different processes of obtaining photographs generally informs my writing. So for Mothlight, this is about a set of images from one real life, and how they can be put together into a cohesive narrative. For my next novel, I’ve used photos found in flea markets in Strasbourg, whilst the third novel that I’m drafting now has photographs specifically taken by the protagonist. All require slightly different methods of writing and approaches to the narrative.
A sense of the uncanny, where something is eerily familiar, is used within the book. Why is this such an effective device and what role does memory, real or imagined, play within the novel?
I suppose everyone is in some sense haunted by their own memories and the past has an abstract potential for powerful effects, which anyone on some level can understand and relate to. The role of memory in Mothlight is a little more complicated for two reasons. Firstly, there are a lot of memories taken from my own life which rub up against the memories clearly contained in the photographs used. And secondly, the perception of the book’s narrator gradually disintegrates and slips in between the cracks. I really liked the idea of a Marcel Proust-style narrator beginning to lose track and become entangled in his recollections rather than being able to recreate and gain pleasure from them, to the point where the memories become the bars of a very personal cage.
Obsession and repression lie at the heart of this book. Why is the ghost story a good medium for exploring these issues?
If something is being repressed, its moments of manifestation will be half seen or glimpsed rather than experienced head on, at least at first, very much like a ghost. And “ghost” as a term is as much a synonym for the persistence of memory as much as a spirit of the deceased. The best ghost stories for me match an ability to frighten with a keen sense of other themes, often far from the supernatural. Charles Dickens’ The Signalman is the perfect example, where a terrifying story still manages to pass effective comment on everything from post-traumatic stress disorder and loneliness to the dangers of industrial technology.
What role does location play in the novel?
Location is incredibly important as it’s never not there in the book, either in the memories, the photographs or the present day of the narrator. This reflects my own particular obsessions with place and how we can never quite detach ourselves from landscapes and streets and cities, especially those of our past. There’s also a sense of ghosting between the north and the south in Mothlight which I quite like and is there pretty much as a release for my own feelings as I moved from Liverpool to London in the middle of the writing. North Wales also plays a big role, partly because it was there in so many of the photographs and also because it’s a place that genuinely haunts the skyline of the Wirral peninsula where I’m originally from – well, Wallasey anyway.
Tell us about your fascination with moths.
Some of my earliest memories are connected to moths, mostly because I remember the first thing I ever wanted to do job-wise was to be an entomologist. I remember raising a multitude of caterpillars until they became moths, and for some reason they always were moths and not butterflies. There was an especially exciting one called a puss moth, which I raised two of, one of which turned into a parasitic wasp and whose story is in the book. But the caterpillar builds its own cocoon from wood and then turns from a vibrant, green-purple larva into this large, fluffy, quite glamorous moth. It was like a miniature science fiction film played out in a jar over several months. I also remember being obsessed with a book known in entomology circles simply as Skinner, which is a reference book by Bernard Skinner with painted plates of British moths. Every page was beautiful and exciting to look at when younger and I may be right in thinking it was one of the first books I ever properly wanted.
With so many photographs now taken on mobile phones but never printed, do you think that we are robbing ourselves and others of a physical, historical archive and does that matter?
I suppose that’s happening on some level but I like to find a balance between the positives of digital photography and some obvious negatives too. A lot of people are able to take photographs now because of the ease and access allowed for by digital photography, which is fantastic. In an ideal world, the digital revolution would have maintained the accessibility to analogue forms for those who wanted them and so the sheer fact that it has made it more expensive to photograph and film physically is a frustration I can’t quite turn off. I’m not sure whether Mothlight, for example, would work with digital photos though I’m always up for a new challenge.
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