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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Carol Topolski is a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Her many previous roles include music festival organiser, advertising executive, teacher, nursery school director, director of a rape crisis centre and refuge for battered women, probation officer and film censor. She lives in London and is married with two daughters. Monster Love is her first novel.
Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Monster Love?
Carol Topolski: well, I'm not at all mystical when it comes to writing, but having spent much of my professional life rummaging around in the unconscious, I have to say the story -- or a character at least -- popped up quite unbidden one day when I was writing something else. I can only think she emerged from the dark side of my mind. I was experimenting with a first person voice in another story and suddenly found myself writing two sides of A4 in the primitive voice of a little girl who appeared to be in a cage. That was Samantha, on whose death at the hands of her parents the story is predicated. Ironically her voice didn't make the final mix, which was saddening but fitting, since she was invisible and inaudible throughout her short life. She's become a punctuation stop in the stories of other people.
MT: What made you want to write a novel about a child murder?
CT: Ingmar Bergman called the grim time just before the dawn dilutes the night the hour of the wolf, and says that it's in those moments that the worst thoughts imaginable often occur. I wouldn't be the first parent to find that space teeming with terrifying anxieties that something might happen to my children. My world shifted when I had my first baby, since now I had a tiny dependent to protect. I'd been alarmed by the threat of nuclear war before I gave birth, but now I was alarmed by the threat to her. So for me a child being murdered was the worst possible hour of the wolf imagining and I wanted to explore that territory, map its consequences -- push my own tolerances to the edge probably. At a more macrocosmic level, a child represents everything that is unsullied and innocent in a society -- everything a society needs to believe exists in order to have a picture of itself as broadly good, so killing a child is a mortal insult to that picture and offends us all.
MT: The Gutteridges kill their child, Samantha, in a hideous way. Did writing about their fictional crime help you understand how such crimes can occur?
CT: I have to confess to an embarrassingly long CV, and one of my previous incarnations was as a Probation Officer. I have therefore spent a considerable amount of time in prisons -- though fortunately they always let me out! -- and with criminals. It must be pretty obvious that I'm interested in the darker aspects of humanity and in discovering not just the who or the what or the how of a story, but the why. There will always be crime -- delinquency and disobedience are inevitable in even the best regulated of societies -- so the interesting thing for me is to find out what in any community is designated criminal and how that community chooses to police it, judge it, punish it. Another of my incarnations was as a film censor for the BBFC, so my memory banks are full of ideas and images from films where crime and the criminal are under inspection. Louise Bourgeois once said "Happy people don't have stories" and while I don't entirely concur, for me it's certainly true that unhappiness has complexities and mysteries that are fascinating to try and understand: complexities that happiness lacks.
MT: What do hope your novel will achieve?
CT: The 'Monster' of the title is deliberate. By defining people as monsters, we rid ourselves of the need to think about them: we can consign them to a bin and walk briskly away. It's a headline term, a slogan, with no depth and no real meaning other than giving us authority to repudiate someone absolutely. Casually. It's similar to what I call the nose-job phenomenon -- you know, the if-only-I-had-a-nose-job-I'd-have-a-career-and-a-boyfriend-and-money-and-the-sun-would-shine-all-day. That is, if only we can cut out people we designate as monsters, then society would magically have a pretty face. It doesn't work that way. I wanted to put the reader inside the heads of two people who have committed monstrous acts, not to exonerate them, but to make them spring out of a two dimensional headline into a three dimensional existence. Out of understanding comes change.
MT: How long did it take you to write your debut Carol?
CT: From start to finish, about four years. I had to fit it in with my practice -- not always easy -- and, after all, being my first, I was learning on the job. Rather like being a parent for the first time. Reading books can help, but you'll really only know how to change a nappy by doing it.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
CT: Oh, I'm a queer old-fashioned thing. I write in longhand. Not that you can see it in print, I have an almost wholly illegible handwriting that even I struggle sometimes to decipher. When I wrote my reports for the Film Board before the advent of computers, the secretaries used sometimes to pin one of my reports to a Wall Of Shame with words circled and a plaintive note attached saying 'can anyone tell us what this says?' From time to time I could. But it means that the words on the page are irreducibly mine -- and that I never lose anything I write because I then type it into the computer, onto two memory sticks and print it out. Then edit from the printed copy. I'm ashamed of all the dead trees but it all helps me to own the writing. And I edit when it's all done. Then again. And again...
MT: You are a practising psychotherapist -- how does your work inform your writing?
CT: My work with patients can't help but inform my writing. Over the years they have been subtle and excellent teachers of how the human mind works, how conflicts occur, how fantasies and reality clash and mesh and how to effect change. That being said, I have been scrupulous about ensuring that no part of any patient's history has appeared on a page. Not a jot. But then up pops the unconscious again and while consciously they're not there, unconsciously what I've learned from them is certainly present. They are, after all, a vital part of my own history and what they've told me is in turn part of my telling. I am indebted to them.
MT: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your novel Carol? How did you overcome it?
CT: I made the mistake, I think, of not staying with the first person voice throughout. There's one character -- James -- who couldn't be written in the same way as the others and that was because of my own limitations. I couldn't bear to be in his head, so his story is told at one remove. I struggled with that, because it felt -- feels still -- like a hiccough in the narrative, but what he'd done and how he felt about it was unbearable. Essentially I wimped out, so I didn't resolve that one. The other difficulty was in the structure. As you know, the story is told in discrete accounts by people who have been involved with Samantha's parents, so plotting who would speak when was a tricky bit of literary architecture. I was given a fellowship to an artists' colony in Costa Rica two years ago and in my room I had two huge tables running along two sides of the space. I separated each account out, laid them along the surfaces and moved them hither and thither like a wordy jigsaw puzzle until they seemed to fit together. Utterly concrete, but it worked.
MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your book? What have you learned from them?
CT: Oh, I'm a moth-to-a-flame where equivocal reviews are concerned. I suppose I may develop a more calloused skin some day, but for the moment anything even remotely negative floors me. I've been very fortunate in the reviews I've had, both in print and on the internet, but when someone says something critical I do take it to heart. That being said, I've certainly learned something from the responses to the book that I'll apply to my second and subsequent novels.
MT: What do you do in your free time!?
CT: Talk. Then talk some more. Then talk and laugh and debate and gossip and chortle. Then talk... As a pretty gregarious creature it's a mystery to me quite why I've chosen metiers that root me in contemplative silence for hours at a time, but I do find a creativity in silence which complements the creativity in conversation. People are my food and drink, both in life and in my writing. Of course, I also love cinema, theatre, music, cooking, yoga and - strangely -- reading.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
CT: I suppose while I write hoping that I actually have readers, I don't bear them in mind when the story's taking shape. In that sense, I'm talking to myself -- or at least the part of my mind that's generating the ideas and images. I've been terribly gratified by how broad a sweep of readers 'Monster Love' has had and how many of the readers who have generously reviewed it on Amazon have said "I don't usually read this sort of book but..." so they're as surprised as I am that they've enjoyed it.
MT: What are you working on now?
CT: I have a two book deal with Penguin/Fig Tree, so I'm working on my second novel, due to be published in 2010 I think. I seem only to be able to write about dark things at the moment, though that may change, so this one examines -- among other things -- some unusual sexual inclinations. Probably not a comedy then...
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
CT: Oh my goodness, that's a tough one! That's the sort of question that immediately blanks one's mind. Easier to say the kind of novels that grip me: novels that draw me into new ways of thinking about the world/politics/people; novels that challenge my assumptions, introduce me to seductive characters, talk to me in strange tongues. I specially like to read a novel set in foreign parts when I'm actually there, so I read Don de Lillo's Falling Man when I was in New York recently and Alessandro Baricco's Silk in Italy. Both mind-bogglingly brilliant.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
CT: I suppose the only tip is to play. Play with words, with ideas, with character until what's finally on the page is your unique voice. Don't borrow -- consciously at least (we're all guilty of unconscious plagiarism) -- other writer's tricks because it will dilute and distract your own truth and your writing will suffer as a result. Above all, enjoy yourself -- enjoy both the thrills and the despair of struggling to express what you want to say and allow yourself the freedom to get it down in whatever form it occurs to you. The rewriting can be the most creative part of the process.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
CT: Thank you for having me.
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