Born 10 months apart, September and July have a fiercely strong bond that alienates their single mother Sheela. After the sisters become embroiled in high school scandal the family move from Oxford to the remote Yorkshire coast where the sisterly bond begins to unravel and things become increasingly unsettling.
The sisterly bond between July and September is intense, exclusive, tender, cruel and consuming. Is it also ordinary? And aside from your own, who are your favourite literary sisters?
I think it is ordinary in many ways because family relationships are that way, changing over time, often intense. I love writing about moments in books which happen to us all: eating cheese sandwiches, watching David Attenborough, going to the beach, trying to get the wifi to work. I also love writing about the weird and there is certainly some of that in this relationship.
There are so many brilliant literary sisters. I love the estranged twins in Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, the Brontë sisters in the beautiful graphic novel by Isabel Greenberg, the enormous brood in Betty by Tiffany McDaniel. Shirley Jackson writes wonderful sisters, as does Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things.
Magical realism and the influence of myth and fairytale are consistent across your books but Sisters is a more traditional psychological thriller. Did you set out to write in this genre?
I set out to write a book about a haunted house and in the drafting process it shifted and morphed shape and became a novel which has this absent cave at the centre of it, something the characters cannot quite remember but which they circle around. Sisters has a more traditional structure than my first novel Everything Under but I hope it is still a book which uses ambiguity in an uncanny and sometimes magical way.
What were you exploring about houses and bodies in this book? And if brains are houses with many rooms, which one(s) do you occupy?
In my writing I want the locations to feel like characters. The house in Sisters has a personality which is often changeable, there are rooms which are central to the characters and where they spend most of their time: the sitting room, the kitchen, the bath. Other rooms are darker, shadier, and the characters avoid them – for example, the room where their mother sleeps and doesn’t come out of. There is something bodily about the way the characters relate to these spaces.
At the same time each character has a moment within the novel where they feel themselves to be house-like. Sheela reminisces about being pregnant with July and September and then later how depression felt almost the same way, like something living inside her. July depends so entirely on September – in a way which becomes worse as the novel progresses – that she is, really, trapped in her body as much as she is trapped in the house.
That’s a great, if tricky, question! At the moment for various reasons I think I am probably in a very small room, a toilet or utility room, perhaps a pantry, which is not unpleasant but is cramped; there is a small window through which I can watch the sun crossing the sky. At night I think the room is bigger, a ballroom maybe, and I am asleep right at the middle of it.
Sheela tries to adjust to living and working in the Settle House but it rebels, “shutting down like an ancient computer”. This seems oddly relevant since Covid-19 forced us all indoors for the past few months. Do you think the virus has meaningfully altered the way we inhabit our houses?
For many of us we are spending so much more time in the place we live I think it must do. At the same time no one else really comes into our houses now. This makes them such private, secret places in a way I’m not sure they felt before. Looking around I can see how my partner and I have changed our house over the last few months to be more practical, to have the things we need to work and live within it. It is no longer a place where a guest could easily come and anything that we might have gone outside to get is within easy reach. Food is delivered or collected every week, the curtains are open and closed at the same time every day, we are careful about checking the locks because there is something frightening about this small – and often cabin fevered – haven. It feels very easily brought down. It is frightening, sometimes, to leave the house but it is also such a relief to go for a walk, to carefully see family or friends, and it is then, also, a relief to come back to this now incredibly familiar space.
You’ve lived in different parts of the country, all with quite dramatically different landscapes – a theme central to your work. In this one the family moves from Oxford to the Yorkshire coast. What do these locations represent to you as a writer and in the novel?
I live in Oxford but last year my partner and I spent three months in Yorkshire living in our transit van while I taught at York University. My dad’s family come from Sheffield so I’ve always loved that part of the country. It’s a wonderful place to drive around in a van, incredibly beautiful, but it was also a very intense experience. We were both working full time in the van – I was writing Sisters – and it was a claustrophobic and quite restless way to live. While living in a van you try and make yourself invisible so no one knows you are there, moving every day, not leaving anything behind. I wanted some of this feeling of claustrophobia even while surrounded by natural beauty to come into the book.
September and July are rootless – they don’t know their father and have never been to visit their mother’s family in India – but their mixed heritage displays itself in their contrasting appearances. What were you exploring with this theme?
Though the sisters are incredibly close to one another, completely co-dependent, I wanted them to each resemble in some ways a different parent. Though September and July didn’t know their father they understand that he was not a good person, that he made life very difficult for their mother. September looks (and at times behaves) very like their father and I wanted to use this to explore how things are passed down in families – not just appearance and personality traits, but trauma.
In Everything Under mother and daughter share a private language, as do the sisters of this book to a certain extent. What is it that fascinates you about the way people communicate in close relationships and is it something you are building with your readers?
I’ve always loved the idea that between every person in a close relationship there is a language that to some extent no one else would quite understand. A language created from shared experiences both personal and cultural, jokes, memories. I think this is why I like writing about incredibly intense and often isolated relationships – because they are small worlds.
I love the idea – as you’ve put it here – that a writer might be building this with their readers. I often think of writers as in a sort of relationship with their readers and I hope this helps to make my writing feel familiar, for the readers to see the small links and tricks which I put in the books for them. There is something so wonderful about reading a writer for their whole career and being allowed into the world of their syntax which is both ancient but also changes as they change; I suppose a dream would be that readers one day feel that way about my writing.
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