Whilst I love many genres of fiction, I really enjoy those books with a psychologial and emotional element to them. Consequently, I’m thrilled to have an interview with Miranda Gold whose novel Starlings is published today 1st December 2016 by Karnac Books.
Struggling to bear the legacy of her grandparents’ experience of the Holocaust and her mother’s desperate fragility, Sally seeks to reconnect with her brother Steven. Once close, the siblings have become distant since Steven left London, separating himself from their shared history.
Starlings reaches back through three generations of inherited trauma, exploring how the impact of untold stories ricochets down the years, threatening to destabilise a coherent sense of self. Having always looked through the eyes of ghosts she cannot appease, Sally comes to accept that Before may be somewhere we can never truly leave behind and After simply the place we must try to make our home.
An Interview with Miranda Gold
Hi Miranda. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and Starlings which is out today.
Thanks so much for inviting me.
Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
I was born in London and, despite my mongrel roots and the wanderer in me, it’s where I’ve always lived. Yes, it’s a city riddled with contradictions, but I love the layers to it, the pockets that seem like worlds of their own. I was an incorrigible mimic growing up, so I’ve always been trying on different characters, different voices – I usually hear a character before I see her. For a long time I thought there was no magic like theatre – but fiction offered me a different landscape, a more internal one perhaps and I now feel more drawn to the way readers might develop a relationship with the words on the page, it’s a strange type of intimacy that makes them part of the creative process, it’s still a collaborative form. Either way the centre of it is trying to see how a characters’ eyes shape their world and how that world shapes them – this is when I’m not being distracted by my niece and nephew who are far too gorgeous for my own good (a similar problem seems to occur with my neighbour’s cat). I’ve never experienced writing as lonely – writing opens my eyes, I feel unanchored and disengaged without it; for me, loneliness is when I’m not writing.
And please tell us a bit about Starlings.
The heart of it is how those closest to us become strangers and the struggle to unravel the knot of inherited memory. Sally is haunted by her grandparents’ experience of The Holocaust and the way her mother has come to embody it – it is what has been left unsaid that extends its power over her. Sally’s connection with her brother Steven had helped her carry the weight of their history, but he has moved away, separating himself from their past to try and forge a life of his own.
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
Storytelling has always been a part of my life, but then that instinct to imitate, to represent, to string event into narrative – it’s an impulse I heard and saw immediately when I was teaching children drama. I don’t think I had any moment of realisation and I still don’t really think of myself as a ‘writer’ – the word stalls me, I write, it’s something I do and if I’m not engaged with it I start to feel disorientated very quickly.
If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?
I wanted to act for a long time and the process of developing character is similar – I still have to walk and breathe the part, and this is no less important, perhaps more important, if the character is familiar because I’ll have made assumptions and I have to clear all the preconceptions away, get to know them on their own terms.
How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?
This depends so much on what I’m working on, but with Starlings, the research came late into the development of the novel. I had to pull myself back though because I was trying to convey how these memories are handed down and seen and felt through the lens of subsequent generations. The experience of survivors and their plea – Never forget, Never again – was not something I felt I could (or should) find the words for, but something I felt I wanted to approach, perhaps to honour. I was tempted to step away from the (often sketchy) understanding I had of my own family’s history, I wanted to leave the Holocaust behind – but it is part of a personal and collective biography and there was an urgency that kept bringing me back to it. If I’d focused on the ‘facts’ Starlings would be another novel. Instead it is preoccupied with how powerful the absence of facts can be. As I’d grown up hearing stories I wanted to listen more than read, I think I was listening out for how the narrator tells as much as what they said. I was put in touch with two survivors and I listened to the recordings of oral histories which can be accessed through the British Library website. I’m not sure realism always serves the story best, it has to be absolutely true to the world of the novel and the characters, but realism in terms of details can often be distracting, some of the historical novels I’ve read feel suffocated by detail…but in terms of realism, yes I wanted that to anchor it but a mind tripped by the past while the present drives on around her demands something else.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
They’re quite often the same thing. Take it at the most basic level – all a writer needs is pen and paper – there are worlds of potential in that blank page, the possibilities might offer themselves up or shy away, but they are there. In the later stages the writing develops its own momentum and then it’s more about letting it carry. It’s only after this I track back and start to plan – though I know I’ll probably be taken off course. I think I probably take the long way round but it’s the only way I can do it. I do a lot of background work on the characters before and during the writing so they shape their own course – it may not look or feel like I’m organising the narrative in advance but I am in a way. I used to dread returning to the page to edit – now it’s something I enjoy as much as the writing itself. The first draft is often propelled by an urgency that can be overwhelming so the second, third, fourth drafts, however frustrating, have a more settled tempo, and I find it exciting when I can clear away obscurity in a moment, all those pages I thought I was so attached to were just a playground where I’ve tumbled and scraped my knee…I wince a bit and trundle on. I have my fair share of middle distance staring, but I get a bit tetchy when I’m not writing once it’s found that momentum of its own – that’s the gift it gives back if I’m lucky, I have to grab it.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I love stolen time – the time when I’m waiting, or it’s late, or I just hadn’t expected to get the chance – the pressure’s off and the work moves forward quite suddenly. I tend to try and sneak a burst in early on just so that the story is moving when I come to it later in the day. I write at home in the afternoon until I get cabin fever and then I’ll be scribbling or typing while eking out a coffee, I might go to the library – I’m not difficult about where – I’ve written in pubs, on the tube, in the airport – unless I’m struggling to hear the rhythm of the section I’m working on I actually find absolute quiet more difficult. It always surprises me how much of the writing happens ‘in between’ – especially if there’s something I can’t quite see or hear – there’s not much to be gained from banging my head against a brick wall so I’ll put the pen down, get out the way, leave the characters and their story and get on with everything else I’ve neglected – chances are I wasn’t listening closely enough and need to back track a little.
I know you’ve written scripts before. How did that experience differ from, and affect your writing of, a novel?
Other than working on my adaptation for Starlings, it has been some time since I’ve written for theatre, but whatever the form, I always feel as though I am beginning again – every piece demands a new logic – I can only just about grasp how to write the work I have ‘finished’.
I suppose the most fundamental difference is that with writing a novel I am building a world out of words, there is no other medium to translate a character’s experience. Theatre has an immediacy and a compression – a single gesture or a subtle shift in tone, a change in light these can signify so much, instantly. There is an intensity that comes from it being a collective experience – it is live, public, the entire narrative arc is taken in with only one interval, at most two, occasionally none. Also the impermanence, the fact that no performance can ever quite be repeated, the words are coming off the page and contrasting moments can happen simultaneously where as, of course, with fiction, the impression of simultaneity can only be created with one word laid down after another. But there is another type of immediacy in fiction – both with the reader’s connection to the page that brings the world of the novel alive, and dipping in and out of a character’s consciousness. The visceral element of fiction has to come as the reader translates the words back into experience, its builds, and because it depends directly on the reader reimagining (the mind holding all five senses without the director’s and cast’s interpretation), the effect can be more enduring. That said, I saw a production of The Homecoming more than a decade ago and it’s still with me.
(Oh, that’s so interesting.I often wonder about the gap between the what the writer writes and what the reader reads when they bring their personal history to their experience of the book.)
Starlings is being adapted for the stage. How much are you involved in this process and what can we expect?
I’m due to workshop some ideas in the next few months…I’ll keep you posted!
Starlings explores family relationships. How important was it to you to write about this theme?
Family relationships often form the foundation for my writing, even when I’m not conscious of setting out to explore them. These connections may not be explicit but they play into the characters’ trajectories, pulling them back, pushing them forward, creeping up on them, evaporating. Why will one character carry her history inside herself and another transcend it? How can those we share so much suddenly seem ultimately unknowable? Or is it that the familiar becomes invisible, that it’s only when a pattern breaks that it reveals itself? Though I resist the idea of inevitability, I am intrigued by repetition, by the tenacity of what persists and what it might mean to the world beyond, how does that world redefine it? I’m curious about how many versions there are of each family member, how each are played out against or in response to how they are perceived. What is it that colours the lens each character looks through?
(Again, Miranda, I find this fascinating as I believe we have so many perceptions of ourselves depending on who we are with, let alone the perceptions others have of us.)
There is an iterative theme of trauma throughout Starlings. How far do you believe that trauma is an important part in making us who we are?
This depends on so much, none of it measurable and, at least from what I understand, the way trauma is embodied is not something that is stable. I think the foundation we have plays into how trauma affects us, as do the resources we have. It isn’t necessarily about strength or fragility or even resilience and I think there is a danger of letting it eclipse identity, we are so much more than what has happened to us…whether it paralyses someone or reveals their resilience, I’m not sure it’s helpful to understand this simply in relation to their suffering – victims, martyrs, survivors – these are all just symbols, short hand when true empathy tries to understand the nuances, the contradictions.
Sally is shaped by the shared memories of her family. Do you have memories from your own family that have influenced who you are as a writer?
‘Shaped’ feels a little too definitive for me in this context – though of course it’s for the reader to interpret this. Certainly, Sally is haunted both by her own memories and the memories that have come to her in fragments – through stories, dreams – but the gaps, the silences, the way the stories keep changing, these seem to have an even more powerful hold. I think what is most destabilising is the way these memories can be remade or dismissed so there is the sense (‘true’ or otherwise) that there is no mirror to Sally’s experience other than the ghosts behind her. I understand memories passed down as an inheritance and this compels me here because the fear of forgetting and the fear of remembering can have equal strength, magnifying each other rather than being cancelled out. The memories themselves are both alien and familiar, a core part of identity and yet, because they are so malleable, often emphemeral, how can they form any essential part of us? I’m fascinated by how strongly we can identify who we are by our memory despite its fallibility. I think shared memory can be a treasure though, whether delightful or painful, they forge a sense of connection, of belonging – much like the reading experience itself, it’s about seeing what someone else sees, that might be illusory, but sometimes it’s the closest we can get to seeing through another’s eyes.
I don’t think I could disentangle what influences me, there are so many strands, patterns reveal themselves in the rewriting, but I’m not always conscious of these when I set out. A memory might propel the piece or even initiate it, but then it meets the world I’m writing in and morphs into something else. Memory is such a potent mix that makes fiction seem like the best home for it.
If you could travel back through time to visit a part of your own family history, when would it be and why would you choose it?
I’m not sure I can really answer that at the moment. Although Starlings is by no means an account of my family history, it does draw on it – it did grow out of it to some extent and taps into so much of what I grew up around, trying to communicate the experience of it, if not the facts. Maybe once I have more distance from it I could think about booking myself a time travel ticket.
I find Starlings an interesting title, making me think of a murmeration and the way memories and echoes of the past swirl and weave – rather like starlings do together. How did the title arise and what were you hoping to convey?
The title came in a late draft. I’d been staying in Brighton and I was watching the murmeration just as the sun was going down. It felt as though everything was focalised through this dance in the sky, this instinctive coordination – and people just stopping, even if it was only for a moment, to look up – or glance with someone, a stranger, who’d seen it too, a fleeting moment of connection. I can’t say honestly that this is what I’d hoped to convey, I just knew this apparently magical course through the sky, organised by its own collective intelligence, was there the evening before and would be there the next – and that was all I needed to know.
As the murmuration has become such a familiar postcard picture I was worried its magic would be lost. I talked to friend who is an artist (William Barrett – open to commissions I might add!) and he said he’d do a ‘mood board’ for the cover (I knew I was on to the right person) and try and get that sense of tentative hope…I think he caught it.
(He certainly did as I think the cover for Starlings is beautiful!)
The Holocaust is a catalyst for Starlings. Was it your intention to remind modern readers of that part of our past or did that arise organically as you wrote?
It arose organically and it was only in the second or third draft that I began to see it drawing into foreground, in the first draft there were only references, none of them explicit – there were so many suggestions but they were obscured – I don’t think I felt I could touch it. I still feel a bit uneasy about whether it was my place to tell this story – but as I’ve said, it isn’t an attempt at transcribing any part of history, only to show a little of what I saw though the lens of the third generation – though that now has disappeared as Sally became herself and, of course, saw something else.
If you could choose to be a character from Starlings, who would you be and why?
I think I’ve been living with these characters too closely to answer that just yet, but if I had to be one I think Claire – she has such a warm, spontaneity, she feels like the least haunted of the characters.
If Starlings became a film, who would you like to play Sally and why?
That’s what casting directors are for! No, I think I’d like to give the reader the freedom to imagine that, once you get an image in your head it can be hard to erase.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Starlings should be their next read, what would you say?
Survival meant silence, but stories left untold live on, their echo chasing the next generations.
Or maybe –
Sally’s brother Steven has freed himself from the ghosts of family history – why can’t she?
(I like both these tag lines Miranda!)
Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?
There’s been quite a resurgence in oral storytelling and when these myths, legends, wonder and fairy tales are brought to life all the underlying structures resonate. Music has always been a short cut to the soul for me, bypasses all the analytical and critical – I’m not sure it gives me ideas so much as create space for them. Theatre certainly, but if I’m honest I’m as likely to be inspired by the person I spot in the foyer or the one who has to get up so I can get to my seat as I am by the play – there are overlaps, something external sparks with a line sparks with…it depends on how open my own senses are. Being in a new environment can set something in motion – but it’s as much about being away from the familiar in order to see it as it is writing about (or through) wherever it is I’ve arrived.
And finally, when you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I re-read quite a bit – poetry and plays as well as novels – books become reference points and the person I am coming back to Gatsby or To The Lighthouse finds something else behind what I heard five, ten, fifteen years before. The compression of short fiction, like poetry, can be astonishing – there can be a sudden visceral power, a single moment can expand out in an almost tactile Three of the most striking novels I’ve read this year have been in translation – Human Acts, Signs Preceding The End Of The World and A School For Fools. I’m a reader who likes to stay on the page, it’s not just about turning it, and, each of these novels had lyricism that was both brutal and beautiful, they forged their own language to say what couldn’t be said – it meant they had a vitality that made the poignancy carry.
Thank you so much for your time, Miranda, in answering my questions. Your responses have been so interesting and though provoking. I can’t wait to read Starlings.
About Miranda Gold
Miranda Gold is a novelist and playwright. Her novel, Starlings, is currently being adapted for the stage, and she is now working on a new novel exploring post-natal psychosis. Before turning her focus to fiction, Miranda took the Soho Theatre Course for young writers, where her play, Lucky Deck, was selected for development and performance. She is currently based in London.
You can follow Miranda on Twitter.