Author Q&A:
Rachel Genn

What You Could Have Won
(And Other Stories)

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Henry Sinclair is a failing psychiatrist who believes in fame but not love. He manipulates his girlfriend Astrid, a singer, into a position he can bask in, in a toxic relationship that moves from their New York apartment to a Greek nudist resort to a celebrity rehab centre in Paris. Genn is a neuroscientist by training who teaches creative writing in Sheffield and Manchester, and this is a biting, exuberant look at music, drugs and survival.

You write that this book came about because you didn’t want Amy Winehouse to be dead. Why did she inspire you and what are the parallels between Astrid and Amy, beyond the fact they’re both singers with a drug problem?  
It seems to me that Astrid and Amy (and maybe a proportion of my readers) are persuaded not to acknowledge what it means to own your talent. When afraid of their own power, a force that mainstream culture mis-labels, misinterprets and denigrates instead of helping to nurture and protect, we are forced to transform talent into something that everyone knows what to do with. Astrid and Amy alchemise talent into love and therefore divert their powers to lovers who don’t deserve what they’ve got to give, essentially making love out of talent they haven’t burned off or have no place to put.

What did switching between second person perspective for Astrid’s chapters and first person for Henry allow you to achieve and what does it convey about their characters?
There’s something very indulgent about using first person with someone like Henry who has a lack of self-awareness. I was reading recently about sadism and it really put me in mind of Henry, always trying to show how eminently deserving of praise he believes he is while still punching down. “I” seemed so very right right for him. I used second person for Astrid to enmesh the reader with Astrid’s states through the book (only breaking in a couple of – I hope – significant life and death places). “You” gives the writer a “who, me?” jolt that they have to settle into. “You” holds the reader at arm’s length but allows for a simultaneous taking under the writer’s wing and so offers a scalloping of vulnerabilities (Think Pam Houston’s How to Talk to a Hunter). “You” may also mean a character is afraid of the reader not believing her story, when she has finally decided to tell it. Henry, of course (with his all-being “I”), knows he will never be doubted.

What were you exploring about female resilience in the face of social control?
This started as a short story about how a relationship (from Astrid’s point of view at least) is shaken by the seismic intensity of the box-set of The Sopranos and how the stories achieve their effect. Ursula Le Guin talks about how certain stories (known now simply as Story) concentrate on the raping, the spear-throwing, the battering of enemies by heroes and how those of us to whom that story doesn’t belong sit quietly “cowering in our own lives”. I want people to finish reading my book feeling like Thelma and Louise as the car is still going out over the canyon. Where going up is a possibility.

Are there parallels between the way an unethical psychiatrist is able to manipulate their patient and a writer their character?
Absolutely there are at the beginning of the relationship, but once the writing (hence characters) has a life of its own, we are susceptible to being manipulated by it too. The writing does things behind our back when we are not looking. I have just written a piece about how writing is very much about flirting with the work. What made lockdown so impossible for me was that I had the whole family watch me readying myself to flirt. Horrific. I enjoyed focalising through Henry – I found it cathartic.

As well as being a writer you are a neuroscientist and a visual artist. Do your practices inform one another and is there a common thread?
Before I committed to writing, I was an addiction scientist helping to outline brain pathways that control “wanting” and “liking”. I had turned to art and writing to play with what I learned in my research career, always aware, as journalists must be, of the difference between reporting a story and looking for a story one wants to find.

Then, I found myself in a head-high urban orchard at a local documentary festival being questioned about my gallery installation, the National Facility for the Regulation of Regret, when a producer asked: “So come on, why are you so obsessed with regret?” I had already wheeled out my neuroscience research, my interest in the role of regret in addiction. Hadn’t I just said that wanting what we no longer like often leads to regret? But documentary producers sniff out insincerity like airport dogs and, with one direct question, she forced me back to the regrettable acts that lived under my themes. With one chop, the origins of this work (that had never been unearthed) were made public to me for the first time. I wanted to write about that revelation.

You also lecture in creative writing at Man Met. How should universities deal with students in the pandemic? Will you encourage them to write about their isolation or steer them away from it?
Anything that prompts questions about your endurance as a human being is suited for thinking and writing. Universities have an obligation to the ongoing safety and nourishment of their students and should offer ways in which students might best use their experiences for their own good. I am in a reading group that only reads Nobel Prize winners (scoff here), but if these books provide anything in their commonality, it is a sense of how the human spirit endures privation and insult, and develops because of it. You know, privation and insult, like under a prolonged Tory government.

How did you approach writing about drug use, which can be a colourful real-life experience but often fall flat on the page?
I approach it with the knowledge of the mechanics of drug abuse and its effects, using the exercise to challenge myself to hide the evidence of what I know, and I hope that tension builds a hidden strength in the narrative. Someone introduced me to the idea of sprezzatura after the fact, the Italian word defined as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. Your job as a novelist is to beef up the narrative with research, then render it vegan.

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