Francis Spufford: “I felt that calling myself a writer would be a boast” | Francois Spufford

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FRancis Spufford, born in 1964, is an exceptionally gifted, adventurous and versatile writer. He started with non-fiction that included a powerful apology for Christianity, without apologizingin 2012. He published golden hill in 2016 and it was golden: an exceptional debut, set in 18th century New York, it won the Costa Prize for a first novel. perpetual lighther second novel, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and is a bold departure in fiction that imagines what it might have been like if the people who died when a German V2 rocket fell on south London had been able to live out their lives.

Tell me about the starting point of perpetual light.
I walked to Goldsmiths [where he teaches writing] every Wednesday for 14 years and there is a small round commemorative plaque on the Iceland branch on the corner of New Cross Road. There’s no reason to look at it, it’s part of the South London landscape. The plaque states that 168 people were killed at this location one midday in November 1944 when a V2 fell on Woolworths and destroyed it. In addition to starting a fascination with this story, it started a reflection on the extraordinary things that cities usually contain and then lose. I wanted to find a way to remember the event that was faithful but not literal, so I had to invent a London neighborhood and drop my own V2 there, so as not to trample on anyone’s real grief.

To what extent, as a novelist, do you play God?
The idea of ​​an omnipotent novelist is downright impossible. The best novelists can find, even for their most megalomaniac, a cheap substitute. I wanted to offer a point of view far enough from the normal human to allow us to look at our lives in time in a way that we usually don’t.

You are a prodigious reader, how were you as a little boy?
I was a lonely child, with a pudding cut and a selection of acrylic polo necks, who got along better with adults – who appreciated that I was precocious and had the largest vocabulary in the world – than with children my age. It wasn’t emotional precocity, it was verbal precocity – I had elaborate ways of saying simple things. I was almost permanently afraid of my younger sister’s serious illness, of which she would die in her early twenties, and this had the effect of preventing me from feeling too, too directly, the things in front of me. I have lived in books for a long time. There was definitely a robbery going on. I was a compulsive reader but that didn’t make me want to be a writer. I read to escape and didn’t want to do the hard work of providing that escape. I wanted to be a reader when I grew up and worked as a reader at Chatto & Windus [from 1987 to 1990]which was an education.

Why and how?
Carmen Callil [Chatto’s managing director] was a feminist icon but [Chatto] was also, oddly, the last act of the British gentleman’s edition. It took place in a Georgian house, full of shabby, grand furniture. They made me read and type reports in the attic on a huge manual typewriter. It’s a lost world now but felt like modernity then.

You started writing in 1989, the year your sister died. Was it significant?
I think it’s too clean. There must be a connection between old grief coming to an end and becoming grief and being more free to start writing, but being ready to write also had its own independent timeline. It was about becoming less paralyzed by perfectionism. It took me a while to decide that I wanted to be a writer. And then I felt that calling myself a writer, even less a novelist, would be a kind of boasting. I accepted it gradually, once I could see the objects I had made.

Your woman, Jessica Martin, a former Cambridge scholar, is a Canon of Ely cathedral. Are you still a lay representative of the diocese?
I am no longer a representative of the General Synod because I was really bad. Being a good talker as a writer does not translate into being a successful church politician.

Yet the reading without apologizingI kept thinking, “Come on, Francis, you have to go up to the pulpit.
No! I don’t have – I have the freedom to be a layman, I don’t have to speak on behalf of an institution. I preached the strange invitational sermon and found it very unnerving. Doing something useful and devotional is not my thing. And my wife is really good at it.

How successful are you in practicing this perpetual light almost preaches: live your life with mortality in mind?
It is easier to be on good terms with mortality when your death is further away. I have times in the middle of the night when dead timor takes me by the throat and I am deeply happy when morning comes. I am not afraid of death. I disagree with the temporary nature of all this.

In without apologizingI was interested in what you say about guilt as a necessary emotion.
As a culture, we are being mean to ourselves by eliminating guilt because it forces us into an unstable oscillation between an incredibly perfect self-image and a dark, hopeless self-image. It is as if we are constantly surprised by the news of our own fallibility when we should accept that we are hopelessly fallible, that our intentions are not always good. I’m not that nice – and I can live with that more easily.

You have a 16 year old daughter. How worried are you about the future of this planet?
Deeply worried. I became a parent late – I have been a stepfather for longer. Shortly after becoming a father, I read Cormac McCarthy The road – a horror-tinged version of a universal parental emotion: the fear of having to leave your child in a dangerous place. This is, roughly, very roughly, the situation of the planet in the 21st century.

What books are on your bedside table?
I will also count those who are on the ground… Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The trip out, a weird experience because I didn’t know Mrs. Dalloway was in it as a walking character. I reread that of Thomas Pynchon inherent vice And there’s more…

What’s the last great book you read?
At Sarah Hall burnt coat was amazing in times of pandemic. It’s a short novel about a virus – not Covid – and an artist hiding with a man she doesn’t know well.

Which classic novel are you most ashamed of not having read?
I’m ashamed to have read only one Thomas Hardy novel: The return of the native… I understand that he is quite good.

What book might people be surprised to see on your shelves?
by Daniel Abraham The long price Quartet – four fantastic novels whose temporal structure I partially noted for perpetual light.

Which author do you always come back to?
Penelope Fitzgerald.

Are you working on a new novel?
I’m two-thirds into a strange noir crime novel, set in 1922, in a different version of American history where there’s a town on the Mississippi largely populated by Native Americans. Gore, Jesuits and jazz – it will (probably) be called Cahokia Jazz and will (probably) be released in 2023.

perpetual light by Francis Spufford is published by Faber (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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