Ingrid is a gift shop girl. Before that she was an IT technician, and before that a croupier, and before that a nursery nurse. She has worked on an enormous, luxury cruise liner for the past five years and in that time she has done more jobs than she can remember. She isn’t good at any of them but she’s good at pretending. And the endless maze-like corridors of the ship are the perfect place to forget the life she left behind on land and the person she used to be. When Ingrid is selected for the ship’s prestigious mentorship scheme – a mysterious initiative run by its captain and self-anointed lifestyle guru Keith – things start to go wrong. Manchester-based author Lara Williams’s second novel comments on the gig economy, capitalism and the self-help industry with a creative narrative readers of her debut novel Supper Club* will expect.
Is the title of the novel a comment on the literary trend to rewrite the classics? And does Ingrid have anything in common with Homer’s Odysseus?
The title is a very slant reference to the classic text. It was originally titled Thalassophobia – meaning fear of the sea – but it was thought the word was a bit obscure to be a title, which is fair enough. And the novel’s heroine, Ingrid, was originally called Circe, as a nod to Homer’s The Odyssey, but I changed her name to Ingrid as I felt, while she has some wicked witch qualities, she ultimately needed a more brittle sounding name. And so the novel’s title came from that.
Dysfunctional and emotionally detached female narrators are having a moment in literature. Why do you think that is and do you have any favourite examples of it?
I guess I find the idea that dysfunctional and emotionally detached female narrators are “having a moment” a fundamentally odd one, because there’s such a far-reaching history of dysfunctional and emotionally detached male protagonists. So the idea that writing about women like this – of which there are many and always have been – as being a moment as opposed to a particular effect that is maybe only recently permissible to think about, seems a bit depressing. That said, I have very much enjoyed Boy Parts by Eliza Clarke, Earthlings by Sayaka Murata and Jillian by Halle Butler.
In contrast to Ingrid, the protagonist of your last novel, Supper Club, was empowered and taking radical action. Did you consciously set out to write a character completely different to Roberta, or do you see similarities?
I wanted the sentences and writing style to feel quite different. I set myself a few rules – very simple punctuation and shorter, more abrasive sentences. But I didn’t have a type of character in mind. It was more the coming together of the writing style and thinking about how a person would respond to the environment of the corporate cult aboard a cruise ship that led me to write Ingrid. But there are a few similarities. They both crave a sense of oblivion – Roberta through eating, drinking and dancing, Ingrid through work. They’re both deeply isolated and seeking connection.
Like Supper Club was a comment on the diet industry, The Odyssey tackles the gig economy, consumerism and the cult of self improvement. Is your fiction polemical?
I’m not sure if I would characterise it as polemical, but I definitely write in response to things that frustrate, upset or confound me.
Why did a cruise ship provide you with a good setting for this story?
I write about place a lot, and I liked the idea of a cruise ship as somewhere that has this hyper-articulation of place, but that is fundamentally placeless. I liked the sense of artifice – everything is fake and pretending. I liked the fact it is a sealed off space. There’s something mysterious about it, but also uncanny and despairing.
Have you ever been tempted to join a cult? Or go on a cruise?
Ha! In my early twenties a friend and I went to the Scientology centre to get personality tests out of a stupid curiosity. The questions were very strange, things like “when you tell an anecdote do you do a convincing impersonation of the people involved?” They took us into separate rooms to speak to us about our results. I quickly wrapped things up but I guess my friend got a little more into it, and I remember waiting for ages outside, thinking: “Shit! They’ve got him!”
My best hope for this novel is that it means I get to go on a cruise. How, I am not sure. Apparently there is a literary festival aboard a cruise??? I am waiting for my invitation.