David Constantine on writing lived experience, fiction as felt truth and hope for the future
David Constantine counts himself lucky to be having a relatively peaceful lockdown at home with his wife, Helen, in Oxford. He spends his time walking and, of course, writing in his shed at the bottom of the garden.
The paperback edition of Constantine’s fifth short story collection, The Dressing-Up Box, will be released later this month by Comma Press. Constantine is a critically acclaimed short story writer and a recipient of both the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and the BBC National Short Story Award. His latest collection is a moving exploration of times of crisis and of characters driven to the edge. Yet, even in his most turbulent and traumatic stories, there are glimmers of hope and human kindness.
I spoke to Constantine on the phone about the true stories that influence his writing, his hope for the younger generation, and how he knows when a story is important.
Many of the stories in The Dressing-Up Box are about lonely people and those struggling with loss and grief. What made you want to write about these kinds of characters?
In most of my fiction, and in a lot of my poetry too, I have been drawn to people whose particular troubles, of whatever kind, have isolated them from the comfort and solidarity available to their fellow citizens, who, in one sense or another, are better off. Some, like Ashton in ‘Ashton and Elaine’ or the children at the mercy of religious sadists in ‘When I was a child’, have been forcibly removed from an order that would have protected and nurtured them. Others drift that way because of illness, bereavement, some weakness or failing. I try to extend a compassionate interest towards them and ask what resources for help there might still be in them or in people they encounter.
Often this means you’re writing about sad and traumatic circumstances. How do you tap into the consciousness of those who have experienced such suffering?
Well, since I was still a student here in Oxford, at post-graduate, I started getting into assisting homeless people and then, with others, opened the Cyrenian House in Durham city. I saw an awful lot of people who were, for one reason or another, not living well. The scene has changed dramatically. Then it was mostly elderly man who were alcoholics; now the scene is an awful lot of young people who are on drugs. Then, when I came here, I did voluntary work as a writer in the local psychiatric hospital with adolescents. I did that for fifteen years or more. I went in whenever it was possible. And latterly, I’ve had quite a lot to do with refugees. This is charitable work but it’s also deeply interesting to me.
My brother is a historian of, originally, the Commonwealth. He did an awful lot of work on migrant labour – people going out from the United Kingdom to the colonies to get work. He moved on from that to child migrants and he’s now become an authority (he’s known as an expert witness) on these colossal and never-ending enquiries into child abuse in Catholic children’s homes, and others as well, in the outback in Australia. I’m close to him and he’s passed on to me stuff like that. He writes reports and he put me on to websites where the enquires are actually fully documented.
The story, in a way the central story, ‘When I was a Child’, has got horrendous things in it, all of which are testimonies and to be trusted. They are by no means the sum total of it, that’s just to say, when you think you’ve reached a limit of what people will do to children when they’ve got them in their power, there’s always something even worse. Now that has affected Stephen, my brother. I’ve seen him, I mean, not made ill by it – but it’s not a pleasant job. He’s a historian and he does the sort of work where you can’t say anything unless you can substantiate it with chapter and verse at the bottom of a page, just as all legal enquires are like that. Fiction doesn’t work like that, it’s true in a different way, and I’d chosen particulars out of what was there as public knowledge.
Do you find it harder to write about other people’s experiences, like those you’ve just mentioned, compared to writing about your own lived experiences?
Yes, I do, and I’ve thought about this a lot actually. The first time I knew that I’d got a subject, when I was beginning to write poetry, was towards the end of my grandmother’s life. She lived with us and she had lost her husband, like so many women, in the First World War in 1916. My gran didn’t know where France was when her husband went; it was the place where you went and got killed. The men who joined up, the working-class men from Salford from the factories and the warehouses, had never been further than Blackpool a lot of them, and then they were sent off to France. She was very touching at the end of her life because she wanted to show me what bits and pieces she had left from her husband, inheritance really. You get a note from the king and all the rest of it. I thought, nobody else in my family is going to write about this, so I wrote about it.
I absolutely deliberately did not try to imagine what it was like being under shell fire for twenty-four hours, or seeing your best friend hanging on the wire, or anything like that. Just as later in the 1960s and 70s when the full, absolutely nauseating horror of Auschwitz and the death camps became obvious, because it was published, I never ever, ever wanted to try to write about that. You get allusions to these things in my writing and I wrote about my grandfather in a way that was largely about my grandmother because that’s what I know about.
I know very little, I know some things very well, but it’s a very small portion of human life in very particular circumstances, it’s best if I keep to that and then try to indicate the ramifications of it beyond my very small entity of life. There are some things I know about and it takes me a long time: it was twenty years working in Highfield [the psychiatric hospital in Oxford] with those children and nearly that long getting to know, very well, a lot of funny and unhappy drunks. Every day after I’d seen them, I wrote it all down, I wrote notes, and that’s the only way I’ve been able to work is through proximity, real close living proximity. Then the rest of the world I know about: I read the newspapers, I watch Channel 4, all that, but it’s not a felt truth. Refugees became a felt truth for me when I joined Refugee Resource and was given a man from Syria to mentor. He talked to me the whole time, I met his family, I know him – that’s the only way I can do it.
You mention working with refugees, and you write about a similar experience in ‘Seeking Refuge’. A number of the stories in the collection have political elements including conflict, race and the environment. Do you think that writers have a responsibility to engage with contemporary issues?
A great deal of human suffering is directly caused by injustice, ignorance or indifference. I do think it’s the writer’s responsibility to face up to that fact and try to bring it home to people in a way that will move them to want improvement. That way, for the writer, is not the way of the politician, historian or sociologist. Fiction and poetry work differently. They deal with particulars. They try to show that humans act well or badly, thrive or perish, in very particular circumstances. Every human being is unique, and suffers or is happy uniquely. Writing on that premise it may be possible also to at least hint at the general forces among which these particular lives are being lived.
When you’re writing about larger historical events, for instance in ‘When I was a Child’ or ‘Rivers of Blood’, how do you feel your way into the individual characters that will tell that story?
Well, ‘The Rivers of Blood’ one is quite interesting because that was a commission from Comma Press. They did a collection of stories where you had to choose a political moment, a sort of turning point, right through from the middle ages to the present. I told Ra [Page, Comma Press’s founder] straight away I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it, but I said if you give me a while I’ll see.
I remembered very vividly being on a march in 1968 in Oxford when I was a student. After the Enoch Powell speech, there was a demonstration organised very quickly by Ruskin College, and this assembled on Magdalen Bridge in Oxford. Then, we walked in total silence through what was then the immigrant area of Oxford, which is just across two or three hundred yards away. In those days, the difference between what they call town and gown was very definite, so we walked through into the immigrant area just as an expression of solidarity. The thing I remembered about the march was that it was conducted in total silence, that was my memory of it, and it was very vivid. The beginning of the story is entirely me, if you like, that’s to say, as a student I was on a march against Enoch Powell, against racism, and I remembered the silence.
The bit where the story ends, with the children crossing at the level crossing, that’s the Cowley road, that’s the primary school where my grandchildren have gone to, where my wife goes in on Wednesdays and reads to the little ones who are from all over the world. I’ve seen that sight where these kids are marshalled across the road by anxious-looking teachers, again from all over the world, and that’s very concrete. I can’t work without particulars, but that’s immensely particular, and it’s unforgettable once you’ve seen it. And yet it’s a sort of daily occurrence really, when schools are open. So those are the two things: there’s one that is absolutely up to the minute still going on, and the other is from 1968. On that basis, bringing those two things together, I emailed Ra and said yes, I would like to do it.
Despite exploring such troubling circumstances in the collection, there’s a feeling of hope running through it and this hope is most often associated with children, as is also illustrated by the collection’s dedication, ‘For the children and their children, in hope…’ What do you see in children as a source of hope?
This is a peculiarly awful period, we’ve had Brexit and now we’ve got a worldwide sickness, with countless people dying. In the midst of it, just these last two weeks, there’s been this huge upsurge, not of children but of young people, absolutely in revolt. Prior to that it was, and still is obviously, the green movement with very young kids, my own grandchildren too, they all go on demonstrating, because it’s their future. And again, millions of years ago in 1968, my wife and I were in Tübingen in Germany, I was doing my PhD, with our first-born child, a very tiny baby then, and I went to demonstrations and hung around a lot with students then. There was a big, green party poster around in those days which simply said, ‘we have borrowed the earth from our children’, and that puts it very well.
There was a period not really all that long ago, when it seemed as though it was all actually going in the right direction, and then suddenly it wasn’t. There’s been huge steps in looking after the environment and then you realise that it manifestly is not enough. But, there’s the power of protest and the power of the young who will have to live in this world. I’m not calamity minded, but there’s no doubt that we are facing the end game unless we do something about it. Too many of the older generation, and too many of the white men in power, are set against any change that would disadvantage them, major forces in the USA and here. The whole revolt is coming from much much younger people, and that’s very encouraging.
Hope, as John Berger liked to point out, is not the same as optimism. I am not optimistic about the world my grandchildren will have to live in. But I live and work in hope that by concerted co-operative effort, by consequential mutual aid, still at the last minute, a world fit to be lived in may be salvaged. I know a large number of people who are working tirelessly to that cause. Every day I read things, see things, have encounters that give me hope. The forces working for disaster are powerful, stupid, hateful and quite without mercy. But the good in people is greater, it wants quickening and, above all, encouraging. Of course, the only thing that will save us is a humane politics, but poetry and fiction can help us shape that politics. I think there’s at least a hopeful moment – an act or turn of events – in all my stories. I write against, and not to encourage, despair.
Building on ideas of hope, a number of the stories also address the power of escapism, like the dressing-up box of the titular story or Miss Calder’s night-time retreats into her summerhouse in ‘The Retired Librarian’. What do you do when you need to retreat from the world?
I walk long distances and that is my relaxation, if you like. It’s also where I look around. If you walk long distances, you meet people and they talk to you because you’re passing through and they’ll never see you again. People like other people to speak to as they go by. I’ve retained countless instances of just how interesting and poignant people are, how exciting they are.
Do you feel, as a writer, that you’re always conscious of potential stories when you’re moving through the world, always actively looking for inspiration?
You’re quite right, but it’s not an active looking, if you don’t mind my correction, it’s passive. When I walk, I attend to where I’m going and I walk a lot of my own and you’ve got to be very careful, you’ve got to watch what you’re doing otherwise you get lost, you might die. So I’m attending to all that very closely. But, at the same time, there’s this sort of openness too. If you go off on your own for a while like that, it dislocates time for a start, and it dislocates you from your usual location and everything is at an odd angle.
The poets that I particularly admire, the Romantic ones, were colossal walkers, people like Wordsworth and John Clare. Walking was a way of composition because the rhythm of walking, many have said this, is like the rhythm of the iambic pentameter, the steps and the beats and the line of verse and so forth. So it’s a very congenial activity, and if I couldn’t walk, I don’t really know what I’d do.
Once you have an initial idea, what’s your writing process from there?
I don’t begin a story or a poem until it – or the possibility of it – has persuaded me that there is something important and worth my whole attention. I can’t start until I have a concrete image or situation in mind and, for a story, also a tone of voice and perhaps a scrap of dialogue. And when I make a start I don’t know where I will finish. I feel my way in the process of writing to an ending which is, I hope, never final, never closure. I don’t believe in closure. I like to end – leave off – where more possibilities, good or bad, are opening up.
How are you assured of a story’s importance?
It’s a matter of not being too eager to jump at it and to wait for it to sort of pester you. If you are continually anxiously on the lookout for what you’re going to write about next, that’s acquisitive and it’s not giving the world a chance, if you like, to just put things to you. A better attitude of mind and body is just waiting really, attending to what’s going on.
You mentioned that you feel your way to the end of a story while you’re writing. More broadly, when you’re writing a collection of short stories, how do you know when it feels complete? How do you gather your stories together?
If you take any four or five years of writing, be it poetry or prose, then there’s a certain sameness which I’m glad about. I recognise the same person writing now who was writing when he was twenty and I’m glad I do. But also, there’s a shift according to the circumstances around you – and just ageing, in some way it’s awful, but in some ways it’s absolutely wonderful. You really do realise that that’s why people can read Middlemarch four or five times because it’s different and you are different. Your apprehension of the world around you changes; it changes very rapidly and excitingly in adolescence, and thereafter it changes again and again. If it didn’t, you’d be dead. So the period of a new collection, either of stories or of poems, is, if you’re lively, a new period of you.
Interview by Katrina Bennett.
For more information and to buy The Dressing-Up Box, visit Comma Press’s website.
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