Separated by a generation and gender, Northerners Leah and Michael are drawn together over a work project one summer in France. But there’s something else drawing the misanthropic middle-aged author to the young, directionless graduate and as Leah transcribes the diaries of Michael’s youth, she begins to unravel his motives. A smart and atmospheric debut, Voyeur explores class, memory and the male gaze.
Tell us about your own background and how it informed your debut novel.
I grew up in rural North Wales. My dad was a forestry worker and my mum worked in retail, and then as a teaching assistant in a local primary school. I feel like it would be disingenuous of me to describe it as a strictly working-class background though, as both of my parents had been practitioners of downward social mobility. We never had any money, but I was frequently in proximity to all the tics and foibles of the British middle classes through my extended family. Consequently, I really feel like I’ve always had a knack of moving between very disparate social groups (and have enjoyed doing so) and have also always been fascinated by the (often pretty sordid) workings of the British class system – an obsession that I think definitely comes out in the book. I had a real shock at the age of 18 when I moved to London to go to university and discovered how the actual urban elite operated – especially in the arts establishment. I found it at once seriously attractive and quite repellent, much like both of my protagonists do.
Is it significant that both Leah and Michael are from the North of England and how has that shaped them?
Yes! Absolutely! Although I’m from North Wales I really feel an affinity with the North of England. I spent so much time there growing up because that’s where all of my nearest big cities were: Chester, Manchester, Liverpool. My sister’s lived in Yorkshire for years, and honestly, outside London, I hardly know the south of the UK at all. I love the North! I love the people! Almost all of my closest friends from uni were Northerners. I think a lot of us from North Wales consider ourselves to be both Welsh and Northern at the same time.
I wanted Michael and Leah to go through what I went through upon moving down to London. You really realise how the North hardly exists for so many Southerners. You also realise just how much money there is there (not everywhere, obviously – I don’t want to flatten a very nuanced issue – but the Home Counties are pretty wild. I went to Surrey for the first time a few weeks ago. It was an experience) In my opinion the bit in the book that sums up Michael more than anything else is when he thinks about how he lost his Yorkshire accent when he got to Oxford, only to glean back polite traces of it later on in an attempt to exhibit some kind of “working-class credibility”. Southerners fetishise the North, I think. Michael is testament to that.
At the start of the book Leah is adrift in Paris and although by the end of it she doesn’t make any huge breakthroughs about her future she is changed. In what ways is working for Michael formative for her?
It was really important for me that Leah wouldn’t go through any huge transformations in terms of her life trajectory. I wanted this novel to go against the idea that we’re all on some kind of teleological improvement arc, and was absolutely determined that she wouldn’t come out of this with (spoiler alert) a job, or a man or any of those kinds of tenets of capitalist, heteronormative “achievement”. What working with Michael gives her is more confidence in her own convictions and above all interesting life experience (which is the main kind of accumulation that I can get behind). I think it certainly makes her less starry-eyed than she is at the beginning of the novel.
Michael is the familiar misanthropic male author who we see abuse his position of power. Does the literary establishment need a Me Too moment?
As a debut author I’m definitely still on the outside of the literary establishment, but from what I can gather I think it’s already having a Me Too moment. Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth was recently pulled in the States, for example, after allegations against him came out, and in general there’s just so many exciting women writers producing great fiction right now. There’s always work to do. You only have to look at publishing and see that most of the people at the very top are still white guys from Oxbridge. In general though, from what I can see, there’s so many women doing great stuff in the industry, so I think change is definitely afoot. I don’t want to conflate two very different issues, but to me the most pressing challenge facing the literary establishment is class – and, under that umbrella, of course, race. I think it’s really exciting that big, national publishing houses are starting to slowly set up shop outside of London as well. If you’re a kid who doesn’t have parents that can pay their rent (or that conveniently live in London), publishing’s traditionally been a nigh-on impossible industry to break into. We need to change that to keep it interesting and heterogeneous.
In speaking French, her second language, Leah feels a detachment and a subsequent freedom. Have you ever written in another language?
I’ve never written fiction in another language, though I do very occasionally write diary entries in French and living in France for so long meant I wrote a of lot of correspondence in French. I really admire writers like Jhumpa Lahiri though. Regardless of how fluent my spoken French may be, I cannot imagine writing anything novel length in anything other than my mother tongue. I definitely feel the detachment and the subsequent freedom in speaking in my second language – but I think self-consciousness would cripple me if it came to writing anything serious in it.
Tell us about the political events that form a backdrop to a portion of this story. Were they a handy plot device to get you from A to B or do they have a larger significance in the modern-day portion of the narrative?
The main event in question is the far-right military junta that ruled Greece between the years 1967 and 1974. I honestly had no idea I was going to end up writing about it. I knew that I wanted Michael and Astrid to end up somewhere far away, and was toying with the idea of Greece. I got chatting about it to one of my favourite regular customers at the café where I worked in Paris. He was Greek, and brought up the dictatorship which – I’m ashamed to admit – I’d been hitherto seriously ignorant about. I initially thought that I’d have to send the characters elsewhere but started to research the period anyway in an attempt to get better informed. The more interested I became, the more I started to imagine how Michael would have behaved in that kind of setting. Greece at that time was a place where it was actually relatively easy to move around and live if you were a foreigner (especially of the Anglo variety), and I was interested in exploring the ways in which complacence and apathy can boil over into full-on collaboration. These ideas reverberate very discreetly in the modern-day portion of the narrative, so much so that they’re easy to miss. There’s a scene very early on, for example, when Leah and her friend Emma pass refugees on the streets of Paris. It’s easy to pin Michael down as the big bad guy, but most of the characters are similarly guilty of turning a blind eye towards structural injustice. I wouldn’t exactly call it a theme of the novel, but it’s definitely there.
What were you exploring with the theme of layers of histories and truths within the novel? Is it important for fiction to be truthful?
I was really interested in writing about the way that the truth is completely subjective and also something in flux. I wanted to write a novel that was made up of sliding panels of differing “truths” and that kept the reader guessing as to how things had really unfolded in the past. I was also interested in the power of the written word. As a successful, established writer, Michael has an unfair monopoly on the narrative of not only his own past, but of the people his past has involved too – Jenny, Astrid, Julian. Michael’s diary is a hugely important motif in the novel. Its very existence has the power to skew future understanding of events and even of people and the way they felt and behaved. As to the last part of the question, I don’t necessarily think it’s important for fiction to be truthful. It should be entertaining, or moving, or formally interesting, or thought provoking. As the age-old adage goes: why let the truth get in the way of a good story?