Author Q&A: Carol Birch

Cold Boy’s Wood
(Head of Zeus) 

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The Lancaster-based, Manchester-born author has unconsciously drawn on her time living in Ireland for her thirteenth novel. It follows an unlikely friendship between Lorna, an elderly woman who moves to the woods from a dead-end town, and Dan, who has lived a reclusive life on the edge of the wood all his life. Fusing the supernatural with the psychological, Birch’s story is, at its heart, a human one.   

Is Cold Boy’s Wood a ghost story or the story of two people haunted by traumatic life events?
You can take it either way. It’s not primarily a ghost story but has elements of that. A ghost story, if it’s good, is always a psychological story anyway. What I do know is that there are people who experience things described as supernatural or whatever term you like to use, and that they experience such things as real. I’m writing here from their perspective and I have to take my characters seriously. I can’t give explanations, either scientific or supernatural. Neither can they. I’m just trying to portray their experience. But the main story of the book is not about that. It’s about a relationship.

Did you set out to subvert the stereotype of the old hag in the strange house surrounded by cats and the homeless man?
Certainly not consciously but now that you mention it I can see what you mean. Actually, now that you’ve made me think of this, I realise that the situation may have its origin in something from my years living in Ireland. There was a woman living in barns and sheds, a very aggressive drunk who most people avoided (she could be nasty and carried a knife) and one night she collapsed in a ditch and was found and offered shelter for the night by a crusty old bachelor, a man who rarely spoke two words to a soul. That situation found its way into one of my earlier books, Songs of the West, and I’ve only just realised that Lorna and Dan are probably a further incarnation of that. Of course it’s different, Lorna’s not remotely threatening. But books happen like that. So the answer to your question is no.

The book explores social problems including rural homelessness, suicide, alcoholism and mental ill health without casting the characters as objects of pity or condemning their ways of life. How did you strike that balance and how can we apply that to real life?
It’s not my job to moralise about the characters – it’s to get under their skin. I don’t want to use characters as social symbols. I want to accept them in all their weird complexity. I don’t go in for heroes and villains because it’s rarely that simple. I do try and have compassion for my characters, even when they’re being horrible, but of course that’s not the same as pity. And it’s the same with real life: it makes sense to look beyond whatever categories people happen to fall into. Most people are far more interesting than that would make them. In my own life, I have known and drawn friends from a wide range of people, poor and rich, mad and sane (those endlessly morphing terms) and all things in between. I have more than a passing acquaintance with the issues you mention. What I know for sure is that what unites people is greater than what divides them, but we’re going through a bad patch at the moment where the emphasis is more and more on division. I try to resist that.

Lorna’s way of life in the wood is unacceptable to her daughter and social worker but she argues that the life she is expected to live – opposite a betting shop in a dead-end town – is no life either. Have we lost our way in how we live our lives, and is disconnecting from nature a vital factor in that?
There’s no easy answer to that. I totally understand why Lorna can’t go on living opposite the betting shop. It would be cruel to make her do so. I can also see why others are concerned about her living in the wood. Have we lost our way? Was there once a golden age? Not necessarily, though it’s romantic to think about a simpler, happier time. I think there are very many people who would benefit from a simpler lifestyle and a retreat from the relentless babble, and I worry about all the usual things like rampant materialism, social media pressures, corporate monopolies, surveillance capitalism. At the same time, you can thrive in a city and there’s a romance in that too, but there’s no romance in it if money’s too tight to mention. Getting back to nature’s not for everyone. It comes down to money in the end. If you’re trapped on some godforsaken crap-town treadmill of hopelessness, then I’d go for the woods every time.

Dan consistently tries to avoid taking responsibility for any living thing other than himself but they continue to come through his door without permission anyway. What were you exploring with this?
That very thing, I suppose. To go back to my years in Ireland: it’s changed a lot since I lived there so it’s probably not the same now. I lived in a remote area. There were so many old single men who’d been the youngest of many – the rest had gone out into the world and the youngest had stayed to work the farm and look after the aged parents, who’d died and left them alone. They didn’t mix much, even with each other, unless it was to pass a few words between one another from either end of the bar. Their loneliness was a carapace worn for so long they hardly even noticed. Dan’s like that but the cats, which have colonised him, are actually his saviours. These men had dogs and sheep. Dan has cats. All of them try to bury emotion but their detachment is always under siege in one way or another. Even a newspaper headline can penetrate.

Lorna and Dan are unlikely companions but are drawn together by music. How does music inform your work and how important is it to you as a writer?
It does seem to keep creeping into most things I write. People have asked about this before and I’m never sure how to answer. I don’t consciously have a thing about putting music into my work – it just sometimes seems to help with mood, ambience, whatever. I do have a brain that hangs onto music and lyrics easily, of many different kinds, so I suppose they seep out. I can’t remember the exact quote but there was a thing Dennis Potter said about the emotional power of cheap music. He was right.

Cold Boy’s Wood is your thirteenth novel. What’s the connective tissue in your work, apart from the fact that you wrote it?
I’m told that it’s marginal people and extremes. Again, I don’t set out to do this consciously. I don’t think: “Hmm, what nice extreme situation can I write about?” I just get a bug in the brain, and it sometimes ends up as a book. I find myself thinking, what was that like? How did it feel to be stranded in the middle of an ocean, to be in the death cell, to be walking with no idea of a destination, to be facing grief or real fear, and, of course, conversely, the joy and exhilaration and strangeness that rides alongside all of that in life. Then at some point I start writing again. It’s unpredictable.

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