One Monday afternoon, pond supplies salesman Selwyn Robby arrives home towing the Toogood Aquatics exhibition caravan and orders his sort of wife, Ginny Dare, to get into the car. He’s taking her on a little holiday, he says, only later revealing it’s to Wales. The newly reacquainted childhood sweethearts take the trip from the Midlands via pubs and ponds. Now senior lecturer in English and creative writing at Wolverhampton University, Blower won the Guardian National Short Story Award in 2009. Her characters are wry and complex, despite the apparent mundanity of their surroundings.
How was the idea for the novel born? And pondweed’s often seen as a pejorative word. What does it represent in the title of the book?
Pondweed is loosely based on a family story: my great granny Gladys was at the bus stop and got talking to an elderly man. It turned out to be her childhood sweetheart she’d thought lost to the First World War. They were both in their eighties so hadn’t seen each other in almost 70 years. She became his companion and housekeeper, owing to his decreased mobility, but because they worried that folk might talk, they got married.
What I love most about this story is how two people reunited in later life and simply decided to live out the rest of their lives together. Was it romantic or was it fate? Was it convenient or was it because of a deep connection that can happen with our first loves?
I was also commuting to North Wales from Shropshire on a regular basis so I spent an awful lot of time on the A55 following caravans. I’d drive past them, wondering who was driving, where they were going, if there ever was a destination that they were headed for, and it seemed to me that it was the thing to do in retirement. We’ll get ourselves a caravan and just go! But then I’d pass really pimped-up caravans or refashioned camper vans as exhibition vehicles…
I started to imagine a retired couple heading towards “something” whilst towing a caravan that represented a foolish pipe dream. And what if that couple had known each other once but had come together in the same way as my great granny Gladys and her childhood sweetheart?
As for the title, Pondweed represents all sorts of things: that foolish pipe dream that can drag you down; a past you’ve clung onto; the way a life can feel as if you’re living submerged even though you’re contributing to society as much as anyone else; that washed-up feeling retirement can cause. It’s the invisible demon that often makes us who we are.
Your last book was a collection of short stories. For you, what are the challenges and opportunities of writing a novel instead?
I always find novels a challenge to plot and I play with structure a lot. Like my short stories, I can always hear the voices very clearly and have the characters thoroughly mapped out, but keeping their stories on a clear track, and especially when so intertwined, was a bit of a challenge. As was timing all those twists and turns.
I was also using the first person in the present tense so maintaining that focus was difficult at times, because I kept having to negotiate what she would say and what she wouldn’t, how she would see things and miss things and mis/reinterpret things. I had to keep asking myself: how would Ginny, the narrator, really tell you this story if she was sat in the same room as you? Just how bumpy would that journey sound?
At the start of Pondweed, age hasn’t brought Ginny and Selwyn contentment or a complete understanding of the world. Is that restlessness of old age a modern phenomenon or an eternal one that fiction has tended to overlook?
I wrote Ginny and Selwyn reminiscent of the working-class generations I grew up with who seemed to me to compartmentalise their lives and knew exactly what retirement meant. But if I shifted that traditionalised working-class mentality into the 21st century where there is no fixed sense of retirement, but private pensions can enable so much security and opportunity, then how might that retired salesman of the 1980s react to what retirement means in the now, if his working life has suddenly amounted to nothing?
Then there’s that sense of insularity – that encapsulates both their lives – which comes with them on the open road. The world is going to be a questionable place when you’re displaced from what you’ve only known. And doubly questionable when you come to realise that you don’t know the ins and outs of each other’s worlds either. So, yes, there’s a bit of a bickering and lots of questions that never get answered because every day is in unfamiliar territory.
I’m not sure if fiction has overlooked restlessness in retirement – I know many strong novels that take on this subject and from various perspectives – and I do have two characters desperate to still matter and go on mattering. My focus on the restlessness was more to do with Selwyn and Ginny trying to fit together because they believe they’re supposed to fit together because they’ve been given this second chance, but neither wants to come fully clean to the other in case it ruins it.
One of the places in the book is described as “too north for the Midlands and too south for the north”. That describes it by its absence; what’s the positive description?
I’m talking about Stoke-on-Trent here, and that’s how it often feels as a place – like it could be here or it could be there and sort of lost within its own geography. And it’s that powerful sense of auto-geography – where we come from and how it informs our sense of self – that can often mean we feel displaced. Just as the whole novel is told from Ginny’s very skew-whiff point of view. The Pondweed journey is a very specific one that is a road less travelled unless you know it, so it’s not about absence, but the fact that we now drive so accustomed to satnav and Google maps that we’re so immune to the places we pass by – they become somewhere around here or not quite part of there. That placelessness was pretty important to get across because of its symbiotic relationship with the characters.
Last time we spoke you told us that Pondweed is about “childhood sweethearts taking to the road to find answers from their pasts to explain their present, but I am sure, because these characters start off in Stoke-on-Trent, I will be asked if it’s working class”. Would you be disppointed if we didn’t?
Ha ha! That made me laugh. And in a good way. It’s rather my Pondweed, isn’t it?