Author Q&A:
Frances Leviston

The Voice in My Ear
(Jonathan Cape, £16.99) 

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Award-winning poet and University of Manchester lecturer Frances Leviston has turned her pen to prose that falls somewhere between short stories and a novel of many perspectives. Ten women, all called Claire, are all trying to navigate power dynamics and relationships with a variety of loved ones. One Claire is a teenage babysitter, another is a TV journalist and yet another is an academic. All of them live in the shadow of a monstrous mother. 

Tell us about the concept of using the name Claire for 10 different protagonists and how you came up with it.
The image I had in mind for the book was a prism: something that you pass a beam of light through, which splits and refracts it into separate colours. The collection gives us these 10 refractions or facets of an underlying story. The “Claire” idea emerged quite suddenly, late on: a simple device that seemed to make visible all the latent connections between the stories, and invite the reader to join them up, or to think about the parallels between them. And “Claire” means “bright” or “clear”, of course.

 Mothers loom large in these stories. Why are mother-daughter relationships so fraught and why does that preoccupy you as a writer?
I think they’re fraught because they’re ambivalent – full of love and hate at the same time – and because we’re expected not to acknowledge this, but to live silently with it. Open struggles between fathers and sons are much more socially acceptable, and more often written about, but mothers and daughters quietly haunt and trouble one another. I’m interested in that feeling of hauntedness.

Aside from the shared name and the theme of mothers could these vignettes stand alone as short stories?
I hope they stand alone. I wrote them one by one, and tried to make them as complete as I could. Perhaps the exception is the first story, the title story. It’s very short and sharp, a splinter, and probably needs the rest of the book to really make sense. But with the other nine stories, I did what I could to give them independence and integrity. I do think the arcs of their action are complete. What needs to be shown has been shown by the end.

 You have penned two collections of poetry prior to The Voice in My Ear. Was the writing process for the book very different?
Yes, very! I’ve found writing fiction fundamentally more social than the kinds of poems I was used to writing. It’s about how people relate to and live with one another, rather than about how an individual consciousness navigates the world. And the story form is totally different. I became a beginner again. I had to learn how to unfold scenes and ideas, instead of leaving them implicit and compressed. Endings were especially tricky. With poems, I nearly always knew I’d got the ending as soon as I wrote it, whereas I found myself struggling with the endings of stories, trying out dozens before it felt right.

You are a lecturer in creative writing. What is your most important lesson for your students and do you follow it yourself?
You have to trust the process. If you keep a notebook, if you write regularly, if you work on your drafts, eventually you will get somewhere. It’s when people lose touch with their writing that they lose heart. Very easily, you can become so afraid of failure that you don’t even pick up a pen. Pick it up. Write something. Let it be bad: it’s a start. I have to remind myself of this nearly every day.

Who are your literary influences?
With the stories, I was reading a lot of Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor. These writers have completely different visions, but are equally committed to their writing. Munro works in a realist tradition. She is brilliantly attuned to what is unspoken, and a master at making this understood without making it explicit. O’Connor’s vision is dark, funny, allegorical: the world she describes is a purgatorial space in which wounded souls collide with one another in devastating ways. Both have written brilliantly on mothers and daughters.

Whose is the voice in your ear and what does it say?
At the moment, it’s a composite of my partner’s, my agent’s and my editor’s voices, and it’s telling me to get on with the next book.

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