Fiona Mozley on writing a Yorkshire Western

 

The National, November 2017

It is the moment that all authors, actors, directors and artists must dread. The point when the glittering award-ceremony cameras zero in on their hopeful faces before that momentous, life-changing line, “And the winner is…”

At the Man Booker Prize announcement late last month, the hitherto unknown Fiona Mozley had to put on her best “look delighted for the winner” face as the celebrated American novelist – and clear favourite – George Saunders took home the £50,000 (Dh243,305) prize and the deserved praise. The thing is, Mozley was actually a little bit relieved.

“It would be insincere to say I didn’t want to win, but at the ceremony I was really nervous,” she says. “After the announcement, I was able to relax and enjoy the evening. I had a huge smile on my face, able to just celebrate the achievement of being on the shortlist.”

That the 29-year-old debut novelist was in contention for the prize was not just an achievement, but a real surprise. Not because Elmet didn’t deserve to be there – its story of a bare-knuckle fighter who retreats to a Yorkshire copse with his children is darkly entertaining, thought-provoking, political and refreshingly different. But it wasn’t even published when the longlist was announced in July, making Mozley a complete wild card.

To then see off the likes of Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith and Sebastian Barry to make the final six was incredible again. But the judges loved it. “Timeless in its epic mixture of violence and love, it is also timely,” they said, “with no punches pulled.”

Now home in York in northern England, where she combines working part-time in a book shop with a doctorate in medieval studies, Mozley is secretly enjoying easing back into her usual routine.

“It’s been quite nice to be getting on with normal things,” she says. “The thing is, all my colleagues in the book shop keep recommending Elmet to people. But it’s been a pretty fun time – it’s such a cliche, but the day I got back to York, I really did think: ‘Was that all a dream?’”

That is apt, given the dreamlike way Elmet came together in the first place. We have all had those moments on our travels when the lives of people that flit past in a blur capture our imagination for a brief second, and so it was with Mozley. On a train to London from York, she was struck by a collection of caravans and shanty-like structures she saw from the window, and it sparked off a “sense of wanting to explore something I didn’t know about, people who were very different from me”.

“I wasn’t really sure what I was doing with my life,” she adds. “I was grappling with the kinds of questions people in their mid-20s do, and I’d previously written about people who were like me or my friends. And I got so fed up with writing that kind of thing – I wasn’t particularly satisfied with my life, so why did I want to spend my time dwelling on it? So there was a real sense of escapism writing Elmet – in terms of the way I began looking at the world around me after that train journey.”

Elmet’s world is intense and visceral. The young narrator Daniel is a diffident boy, fascinated with mythology and, err, housework, while Cathy is a heroine who is “angry all the time”. Defined by his sheer physicality, Daddy brings them up to be “more like an army than a family”, yet there are vivid sections on nature and landscape, which Mozley says come from growing up one step removed from the Yorkshire countryside.

There is a fierce political edge born in part from her studies at York University, too. “People trying to apportion resources, divide land, assert influence – that’s all politics,” she says, and there are really interesting subtexts of how quickly the disenfranchised become outsiders, and how we define community and borders.

“Tonally, the PhD has informed the book,” she agrees. “I have this interest in land and landscape and the way it affects people, and as I was writing, the medieval historical documents did feed their way into it.

“And Elmet centres on a dispute about a piece of land – you can find yourself at any point in history all over the world and people are squabbling over it. So I was trying to look at earlier stories, give my novel a sense of mythology. The characters are convincing, I hope, but they have an unreal, ethereal quality to them as well.”

Yet for all Mozley likes to talk about social, political and cultural ideas, most of all, she wanted Elmet to entertain. It may have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but her debut, like Mozley herself, isn’t suffocatingly literary. There is a propulsive narrative at play here, which has led some to call Elmet a “Yorkshire Western”, with all the enjoyment that suggests.

“Oh absolutely I set out to write a Western,” she laughs. “I’m not rationalising it after the event. I deliberately wanted that traditional narrative arc of a Western: the dispute over land; the question of the individual versus society; how people battle the natural world and their landscape; and the showdown at the end.

“I was really drawing on films such as Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven – there are big parallels with what’s going on in those films and my book.”

In that sense, it has more in common with southern American gothic literature – set in a world we can completely recognise, but in its margins, suffused by “old-time morality”. Mozley mentions Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell and the work of Cormac McCarthy as touchstones.

“McCarthy made me think about every single sentence, how I needed to make every word count,” she says.

Winter’s Bone and McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and The Road have since become some of the most intelligently accessible movies of the 21st century, full of rumination about poverty and society, striking at the heart of the human condition. These are ideas that really resonate with Mozley.

“It’s fine for novels to have interesting ideas, but they have to be entertaining,” she says. “That’s not me trying to be populist, but a novel that is only intellectual and not emotional has failed.

“I’ve become very interested in the ways novels can have a physical effect on people – how they can make you laugh, start sweating with anticipation, cry even. I did want to precipitate a physical effect with Elmet, and I hope people read the last chapters starting to shake, breathing more quickly and deeply. The emotional quality is the key to the political, social or intellectual framework of any book.”

These are impressive aims for a debut novelist. It is easy to understand just why the Booker Prize judges were so impressed – and why the book has begun to work for readers, too. So it will be fascinating to see where Mozley goes next from the immediate high watermark of Elmet.

“Well, I’m trying to get back into my PhD, and I’m about a quarter of the way through the second novel,” she reveals. “It contains similar questions about land and property ownership, but in a very different setting and with very different characters.”

Maybe next time, the prize winner really will be Mozley.

Elmet is out now on JM Originals

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