Can you briefly outline The Bed-making Competition?
Set over twenty years, it tells stories from the lives of Hillary and Bridgid, two sisters who are sometimes close, sometimes distant. Hillary might be the better cook but Bridgid makes a surprisingly good gin cocktail.
Your novella is told in sections that could stand alone but work make a whole greater than the sum of its parts. How did you decide on this structure?
I can only think in pieces. Some of my poetry collections are made up of sequences of short poems that piece together a story. “I, Clodia” for instance is made up of poems that each respond to a poem by Catullus but also tell one long story. I even fitted them to the three part Hollywood structure, doing very careful maths to get turning points and climaxes in the right place. The Bedmaking Competition is a looser structure than that, but I wrote the last story to mirror the first story and offer a series of resolutions. But a lot of the resolutions are still outside the book, because I also wanted each story to be a single contained story, working on its own terms. I like the form of the short story as a form.
Would you call your work auto-fiction? Are these sorts of categories useful, in your opinion, or unnecessary?
As a reader I find these questions interesting but as a writer I want to resist them. The fiction is fiction whether or not I draw from my own life. Like Hillary, I did use to watch the Smurfs after school instead of doing my homework. I did go on the march Bridgid and Julia go on, to support the asylum seekers in Birmingham. There was one young little-known British MP at the time also marching and speaking up for the asylum seekers, and that was Jeremy Corbyn. But almost none of the other scenes in the novel actually happened, and the characters are fictional. I have a younger sister but Hillary is not my sister. My own daughter is not mean to me that way Bridgid’s daughter is. I worry about readers thinking details are autobiographical that I just made up.
At a sentence level, your attention to language is very compelling. Do you think this is connected to your work as a poet?
I think of prose sentences as being quite different from sentences in poetry but then my poetry sentences are very prosaic too, I think, so I don’t know. I think of the prose of the novella as being written in the voices of the two narrators, Hillary and Bridgid, but perhaps their voices are not so different from my own. And in my poetry, too, I have written in the voices of other characters, like Clodia, or Roland or the gas-fitter’s daughter.
What are you working on now?
I am writing a book about poetry and at the moment I am finishing a chapter on sprawl in poetry, while thinking about a chapter on dead poets and what it means to write in anticipation of being dead.