Author Q&A: Livia Franchini
(Doubleday, £12.99/Audible, £25.99)
(Doubleday, £12.99/Audible, £25.99)
When Ruth’s fiancé leaves her all she has left is the list for their next food shop, so she uses it to tell her story. Starting with six eggs and working through a whole chicken and white wine, we begin to see a picture of a woman defined by those she serves – the patients at the care home she works in, her friends and, of course, her ex. As she works towards writing a new list for her single life the shadows in Ruth’s life and relationship take form and Franchini, a debut author, weaves in challenging questions about womanhood.
You’re from Tuscany and live in London. Do you face any challenges not writing in your mother tongue? And are your literary influences mostly Italian or English?
I was born and raised in Italy in a monolingual Italian household, studying English in state school education. I am Italian through and through, but I don’t consider myself an Italian writer. This may sound like a paradox, but it’s actually the most accurate way I can describe myself. I moved to London to study English literature when I was 19, on the cusp of adulthood. Before then, I had only really written in my own diary as a teenager, and for a while, on a personal blog, in Italian. It was, of course, juvenile writing, full of self-indulgence.
When I moved to the United Kingdom, for a couple of years I could not write creatively at all, and when I did have to write (for coursework, for instance) my priority was to make myself clearly understood, rather than forming a beautiful sentence. Because communication had become difficult and I was less in control of the language, a shift in power took place: from me – the “writer” – towards the “reader” I was speaking to. I became more concerned with establishing a connection, rather than simply pouring myself out on the page. I’ve always thought that that shift – putting the reader first – is what makes a writer, way more than publication or commercial success. For me, switching to writing in English made the shift happen, and I am grateful for it, though it didn’t make writing in a second language any easier. I’m still a much slower reader and writer than most and sometimes I actually have to Google words or expressions in English to make sure they exist. Yet I don’t feel like a writer in Italian, because I have never really exercised my first language in the same way. I’m kind of caught in the middle, but I wouldn’t have it any other way – being aware of the limitations of language can be frustrating, but it also keeps me thinking about what my priorities are in what I’m making.
How did the concept of using the shopping list as chapter headings come to you and was it before or after Ruth’s story?
I was working on the first draft of the novel and I kept discarding possible plotlines for Ruth, because they either felt clichéd or forced. After a while, I realised I wasn’t so much interested in exploring the break-up plot as something that must necessarily produce an empowering ending; rather, I wanted to understand the state of powerlessness that a break-up can induce, the loss of identity that comes with losing a person that defined you. I wanted to look at what shapes a young woman’s sense of self as she learns to stand on her own two feet. Throughout our lives as women, we are constantly given new parameters of how to be and I wanted to show how Ruth’s identity was simultaneously affected by these external perceptions, arranging the story accordingly on a level of form. A shopping list is made up of the different items that add up to a person’s needs at a given point in time, and in the book I have used it as a sort of index, by which you can “drop into” Ruth’s story through different access points.
The novel is experimental in its use of text messages, group chats and dating app conversations as narrative devices. Given that these are such a part of everyday life now, do you think we’ll see more of them in novels?
When I started writing Shelf Life the use of text messages and chats felt relatively new in literature, but over the past few years it has become more common. These days I see these formats used a lot in prose writing, although often simply to add an extra layer of realism, such as: the protagonist sends a text, which then appears in a small speech bubble embedded in the text layout, looking like it would on a phone screen. But I think new digital languages hold huge potential for exploring new avenues in storytelling, suggesting new narrative shapes and soundscapes. There has been lots of interesting stuff happening in poetry in this sense, and that was where I was coming from with Shelf Life. I wanted to look at how language has evolved through new media, how different codes can offer different versions of the same story.
Ruth’s relationship is a controlling and abusive one, but she also inflicts controlling and abusive behaviour on herself. What were you exploring in the relationship between the two?
As a writer and a feminist, I am very interested in using fiction as a tool to ask questions about power, and in many ways power is the central subject of the novel. Initially, I saw Ruth as a victim of others’ power, of Neil’s abusive manipulation, of bullying, in school and on the workplace. In many ways, she is a victim. But as I got to know her better, I saw that she should not be exempt from holding herself accountable to herself and to others. To what extent was she being denied agency, to what extent was she choosing to delegate power?
We read stories of care home abuse where supposed carers prey on vulnerable residents, but stories of sexual harassment or abuse the other way round are unreported. Do you think it’s a real problem?
I have no direct experience of care work, and have much respect and admiration for those who do, so I don’t think I am best placed to answer this question. In the novel, I was trying to see how the power relationships I described could play out in a potentially unexpected direction. I wanted to blur our perceived categories of power in order to ask uncomfortable questions about vulnerability: is Ruth a victim or is she an abuser? I don’t have a clear answer myself, but I think that a conversation about the complexities of power and privilege is vital to understanding the world that we live in today.
Tell us about your work on the Goldsmiths Prize. Has it been influential in shaping you as a writer?
I have been incredibly lucky to be able to work for the Goldsmiths Prize alongside being a writer. Being around books and discussions about experimental writing has legitimised me in making bolder choices in my own writing. I work in an administrative capacity, closely with colleagues, as we are a small team. We are campus-based at Goldsmiths, meaning the prize bridges a gap between the student body and the wider literary industry and readership. It’s great to be working for a platform that fosters innovative writing in a real, practical sense: the Goldsmiths Prize is free to enter, and now open to all residents of the United Kingdom, regardless of citizenship.
Are you a fan of lists and what’s on your to-do list today?
I’m just going back in the office after the launch of Shelf Life. My to-do list looks more like a magician’s scroll at the moment!