Julia Armfield on fiction writing, and the
intersection of reality and fantasy
Julia Armfield is the author of the critically acclaimed short story collection salt slow, as well as the recently released debut novel Our Wives Under The Sea, which has been described by i-D as ‘a deeply unnerving elegy to memory’, and by Kirsty Logan as ‘like diving into the deepest depths of the ocean and finding beautiful and disturbing wonders’. Here, Tom Conaghan speaks to Julia about the influences behind both books, as well as the ideas and themes that permeate through them.
Do you have a common starting point when you write?
Most of the time when I write, I am much more inspired by movies than things I have read. Most of the time my starting point is that I will find some kind of an image and some kind of a vibe or tone.
Is there a particular type of film that inspires you?
I am very inspired by the imagery of horror movies because I think it’s often very romantic and visual and lingering. However, it wasn’t so much that a story comes from anything I’ve seen so much as it uses the same vocabulary as things that I like to watch, the very oversaturated colour of certain kinds of horror movies.
How do you then go from an image to a story?
Often what happens is that I’ll see an image and then a person will wander into it, because I’m not actually very ‘plotty’. I will imagine a scene or situation, stick someone into it and let them walk around a bit and usually the vibe will find me from there.
For instance, in your story ‘Smack’, was that Nicola who wandered into the scene?
It was Nicola because at the time that I was writing that I was preoccupied with characters in isolation a lot. I was preoccupied with things that happen when people are left to their own devices and when strictures are stripped away from them. I ended up sticking her in a place that was juxtaposed between the very structured manner of her life and the very unstructured manner of the ocean and all these jelly fish and saw what would happen.
Would you say consciously you did that or that you found you had done that?
I think I found I had done that. I’m not particularly ‘plotty’ and most of the time I’m vibing, so often things start to make sense to me as I go along.
So the character of Nicola was something you discovered or did you have elements of her before you wrote?
She became a product of her environment very much in the way I had put her. It wasn’t so much she was a surprise but that she came to make sense to me as she reacted. She’s actually quite passive in everything that happens – she just absorbs things. And so it was interesting to me that I found her moving towards a space where she became maybe absorbed in the end, although we don’t necessarily know what happens to her.
Nicola’s sister, Ceci, is distant and unempathetic – it reminded me of Miri’s attempts to connect with friends in Our Wives Under the Sea. Is there an effect you want with this isolating of the main character?
While I don’t know if Miri and Nicola are necessarily that similar, I think that in both cases there is an affective isolation which they have achieved almost on purpose, which is not necessarily the fault of Ceci or Miri’s friends.
I think in Our Wives, Carmen, the friend, is not really the negative character that Miri often paints her as – she is a good friend within her remit. A theme that I’m interested in is the way that people self-sabotage and the way in which it is difficult to form connections when it’s easier to feel superior or misunderstood or easier not to help yourself.
In ‘Smack’, I felt the opening scene of the child among the jellyfish inflects the theme of the story. Was there anything important for you in writing this scene?
There wasn’t – though now I’m talking to you about it, I find it really interesting that the story situated Nicola between these two places of stricture and openness and the fact this child on reins also exists between these two things. Clearly I did this without knowing.
I get distracted quite easily when I’m writing and often I feel the need to observe something external; I’m very preoccupied with interiority and specific people which can become extremely suffocating; I’m aware that I can become suffocating so it’s important to me occasionally to look outwards for an image or for some motion.
At the same time, the child is also oddly indicative of the theme of the story.
Yes, childishness came up a few times in the story, though is this too obvious a reading?
No, it’s not too obvious because Nicolas is a child. She’s been treated like a child for such a long time as well, left to her own devices in a way that is perhaps not good for her but also should have been allowed to happen at an earlier stage. Therefore there is this echo of her on the beach.
‘Smack’ has a very palpable setting, while I felt Our Wives Under the Sea sought to orient the reader less. How important is setting to you in your writing?
In Our Wives I’m operating in a slightly more heightened genre than I was in ‘Smack.’ I’ve always been interested in the way that reality and fantasy can intersect. I think place inflects the way my characters react to things and the way they talk and behave but specifics I can often find a little distracting. If the sense of place is too specific it really throws me off when I want something strange to happen.
Because you have such distance to go with your story, you can’t be too tightly anchored to specifics?
I think that’s true. Our Wives inhabits two very distinct spaces – Miri exists in a semi-realist space and Leah is trapped in a submarine and therefore a necessarily more genre-inflected atmosphere. I think it would have been quite jarring to make one space more specific than the other and it felt important to maintain that balance. The genre elements bleed between the two voices and the two spaces, so I had to maintain a level of consistency between the two.
In ‘Smack’, I felt the narration was more arch and comic than in Our Wives: was this heightened formality Nicola’s response to her situation?
To some extent it was intentional in that so much of her is falsity and formed by other people and childishness. But some of it also is that my style is slightly different now than it was when I was writing salt slow [Julia Armfield’s short story collection]. I think my style is less mannered now, not that I consider mannered writing to be at all a bad thing.
Short stories can be more an exercise in form and voice, whereas often a novel can be more of a vehicle to get the story or emotions across. I think short stories give you so much freedom to experiment and do things that you could never get away with in novels. Maybe the tone of ‘Smack’ would be insupportable over the length of a novel.
Short stories also allow you to sit down with often very unlikeable characters. I’m obviously not saying you can’t write about unlikeable characters in a novel, but you have to write bearable characters because people have to spend time with them. Whereas you can really get away with completely terrible people in a short story if you want to because you only have to be with them for fifteen minutes.
In ‘Smack’, we get only a few glimpses of Daniel: his gutting of the place; their conversation about her home shopping; prairie oysters and complaining about his eyes; why did you include these details?
The details were important to show he’s not a monster; I think he’s much less important than Nicola has allowed him to be. I consider him to be someone who got caught up in something and, as quickly, lost enthusiasm in it. And I think that’s quite symptomatic of the world she inhabits. Many of the references to him are to do with frivolous things, I don’t think the depth of their relationship is what she perceives it to be.
How far is the ending of ‘Smack’ an image that you developed later in Our Wives Under the Sea?
It’s not so much that I was building on ‘Smack’ as I was building on preoccupations that I have. It’s also in the collection in general. It’s not necessarily that she transforms for sure in ‘Smack’, though that’s definitely what I implied.
I’m preoccupied with transformation, the unreliability of the body and how it echoes the unreliability of the self – there’s an inevitability to transformation in quite a lot of what I write. I’m interested in the sense of transformation being in some sense also quite freeing because I think it can also be presented as this terrible fate often. That’s definitely the kind of vocabulary that springs up around it in horror a lot. But I like the idea of reclaiming that, it’s almost meant to be a hopeful ending in ‘Smack’ and I think that’s not necessarily the case in Our Wives.
I wondered if the switch to the future tense brought a haziness that you made more definite in the novel?
Yes, I liked the freedom that afforded me, allowing me to draw a veil in a sense, that I can be predicting something. Because you have presented yourself as essentially omniscient narrator in the present, you don’t necessarily know things in the future. I think the haze is entirely what it’s intended to provoke.
Maybe also my reading was too stuck in the classical story of transformation as the punishment of ‘bad women.’ Was this something that you were writing ‘against’?
This is often what I’ve been interested in with transformations, for instance, there’s a story at the beginning of salt slow called ‘Mantis’ which is about a teenage girl turning into a preying mantis. I think in some senses it’s a coming out story. I’m interested in the reclaiming of transformation as coming into a truer self rather than being destroyed.
What, if anything, did you learn in the writing of ‘Smack’?
‘Smack’ was one of the first short stories I was writing with the specific intention to send somewhere. When I wrote it, I was considering the way it would be read much more than I had in the past. I think that made me consider things like structure and pacing very carefully, because I was not writing to entertain myself in quite the same way. It’s not that I believe you have to write for an audience to write well but I think that you have to be considering all of the aspects of story at once instead of just wanting to vibe.
It was quite a rewarding experience, as I was thinking about these things all at once and therefore the story came together all at once which hasn’t always been the case.
How did you find the writing of the novel compared to a short story?
Something about novels that I’ve found I enjoy is really having to care about your characters in a different way and settle down into them. Often when you’re writing a short story, it’s not that you don’t get to know the characters but you’re getting to know them at a very specific point. You don’t necessarily have to consider them in the all-together, whereas getting to know characters in a novel is an all-encompassing thing. I’ve found that much more enjoyable than I thought I would.
Julia Armfield lives in London. Her debut novel Our Wives Under The Sea was named a book to look out for in 2022 by Guardian, i-D, Autostraddle, Bustle, Good Housekeeping, Stylist and DAZED. Sarah Waters called it ‘deeply romantic and fabulously strange’ and The Times ‘heart-slicing…cinematic’. Out now (Picador, £16.99). For full details, visit Picador.
Tom Conaghan is the publisher of Scratch Books.
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