Lancashire-based debut author Alison Armstrong introduces 12-year-old Sherrie-Lee, who witnesses a failed bank robbery in her neglected town and seizes an opportunity to claim a new identity for herself. Escaping her troubled home life, she tries out a new name and invents stories and personas to cover her tracks. Sherrie-Lee finds both possibility and loneliness in this new freedom, as well as an unusual friendship which she nurtures. But harsh realities close in, and she’s plagued with foreboding – from her vulnerable brother at home to the climate crisis. While she dreams of a kinder world, it isn’t long before her own deceits start catching up with her.
Fossils is your debut novel and you’ve done many jobs before. How has your own background informed the story?
It is my debut novel, but I have been writing for 20 years, including short fiction and a play I produced last year. I still work as a waitress and a cleaner. Children I grew up with were, I suppose, living in poverty and many children I have worked with as a teacher have suffered from heartbreaking levels of poverty. It has always been on my mind. I am always shocked that it is not hitting the headlines every day, that it is barely even mentioned.
I don’t see Fossils as a novel about poverty, but I wanted to write a story about people I know and have known, whose voices don’t seem to be heard. I am interested in how people make it work on the margins of society – that struggle to survive, how people get through the day. It is where the questions of existence are most keenly felt.
Sherrie-Lee finds solace in making up stories. Is what she does different to what a novelist does?
She does find solace in them, but she is also frustrated by them. She has seen a storyteller at school and wants to use stories to create some kind of job or escape for herself in the future. Practising this skill, even on disinterested listeners, is a kind of distraction and escape in itself, a line of flight out of present difficulties.
I wanted to write about the power of storytelling in a very real setting. Many novels about storytelling seem to place it in a quasi-mystical/transcendental setting, and that was something I wanted to avoid. It is quite similar to what a novelist does in the sense that Sherrie-Lee escapes into her stories, she thinks about them and analyses them. When you write a novel you have to escape into them to make the fiction seem real.
In a way I kind of lived alongside Sherrie-Lee for two or three years, thinking about how she would see things, what she would say, how she would make a joke about something. I actually missed her in my life when it was all finished.
Is it possible for someone with a background of poverty and neglect to reinvent themselves, and should they?
Of course, nobody should have to reinvent themselves if they don’t want to. In an ideal world people should be accepted for who they are. But it is always possible for people to reinvent themselves given the opportunity, even though it is much harder for people who have experienced poverty and neglect to do this. Both mark you in ways that are deep and often intangible, and they also come with other problems: poverty of opportunity, mental health problems and isolation, and worse.
I experienced poverty and temporary housing when my children were toddlers. It was very difficult to escape and it has had a profound effect on all three of us. It is a very painful thing to experience poverty when you have children. If it were today, I probably wouldn’t have come through it because I had to rely on benefits for some time, and today it looks like the benefit system has collapsed.
Sherrie-Lee isn’t just concerned with her immediate problems, but with the wider world such as the climate crisis. How does she achieve that when for so many, their poverty is too oppressive to think past their immediate problems?
In many ways her concerns with the climate crisis are also a vehicle for escape from her life, both in the sense that she is able to mourn for the extinction of species in the way she could not allow herself to mourn for her own situation and in the sense that her connection with animals is also an escape, in the way that stories are an escape – each animal has its own habits and story that she can escape into.
If you’re lucky enough to be involved in the stories of others, your own story and problems recede. Of course, this is a luxury too, the luxury of a fictional character and a child with an active mind. There are types of poverty from which there is no escape. People die of it every day.
Childhood lies can seem benign, but Sherrie-Lee’s catch up with her. Do you distinguish between harmful and harmless ones?
Sherrie-Lee’s lie had to catch up with her in the story. It was part of the logic and structure of the story that came naturally when I was writing it. And I think it worked well too, partly because one of the themes of the novel is the told story. In particular she is interested in fairy stories, and these told stories always have to have consequences that are directly related to the causal moment or event in the story.
This was the case with Fossils. I felt it had to be written in this way. I think there are lies which cause harm and those which don’t but I was not so interested in this in Fossils. I was more interested in the blurring of distinctions between truth and fiction, both how Sherrie-Lee finds a new identity in making fictions of herself, which becomes a kind of truth, how identities are formed, and more generally how truth is often revealed through fiction. Truths surface all the time when reading and writing fiction. You can’t stop it because both are a way of relating to the world, poking into its corners, its meanings.
How did you navigate writing a friendship between an adult man and a female child?
I was kind of pulled along by the character of Sherrie-Lee, so I wrote the bones of it quite instinctively without thinking about it too consciously. Milan Kundera talks about writing a novel as listening to the greater wisdom of the novel, which is greater than that of the writer and I think that’s true. I very much went with the flow of what came – I got pulled along with it and wrote what felt right for the story. And I am glad I did. It is quite a tender friendship, with lots of frustrations, misunderstandings, and small acts of kindness and disappointments, like any friendship.
I enjoyed writing it, and I think a lot of the humour in the book came from it. I am attracted to awkward characters, and they are both awkward in their own ways and their friendship is also sometimes awkward. I was always interested in their relationship and how to make it authentic. That was the challenge – what would an adult man and a female child find to talk about, how would they end up in a friendship, how would their friendship work. I think it worked because they were an odd combination, rather than it working despite it. Part of writing a character is allowing them to come forward, defy expectations. That is something I am always interested in in my characters.
Was it a challenge to get inside the mind of a child protagonist, and who are some of your other favourites in fiction?
Because the voice came naturally it wasn’t so hard to get inside her mind, and it’s narrated in the third person so I didn’t have to inhabit that voice throughout the book – even though her voice bleeds into the narration. I had to live alongside her to keep seeing things as she saw them. It was a challenge to change how I normally write to maintain the perspective of a 12 year old, but it was also liberating.
I wanted to explore extinction grief – when I started the book it wasn’t being talked about much. Nature, like poverty, occupies a voiceless position in dominant discourses – I thought that a child’s voice could best express that grief, could say things and think things that mainstream politics has deliberately, over a long period, disseminated as being naive for an adult to say. There is a sense in which only a child or lunatic can speak the truth – this is an age-old tradition. Think of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the wise fool in Shakespeare, and Aesop who was himself such a figure. Two of my favourite child characters are the child narrator in Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare and Mick Kelly in Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Both see the world clearly and draw you into their worlds in profound ways, so that you are changed by the reading experience – which is what a book should do.