Interview with Barbara Trapido – Part I

24 Jul 2010

Barbara Trapido is the author of seven novels including Brother of the More Famous Jack (1982), Temples of Delight (1990), The Travelling Hornplayer (1998) and Frankie and Stankie (2003), which have all been shortlisted for major awards. Her latest novel, Sex and Stravinsky, was published in May this year.

Barbara Trapido / Copyright: Britta Campion

Her novels are celebrated for their weavings of fantastical tragi-comic plots and realistic characters, delivered with exuberant wit and sparkling dialogue. She talks to us about Sex and Stravinsky, her inspirations and writing processes and being given the label of a “South African writer”. She also tells us a little about the novel she is ‘brooding’ on at the moment, which may involve a lady who uses ‘a pet baboon to deflea the dog’…

Interview by Kit Toda

I know that some writers find it hard to explain but I was wondering whether you could talk to us about the process of creating a novel?

Characters rise in my mind and I hear their voices ? I usually know their names. I don’t quite see them – they’re like people in dreams, sort of shadowy.  I start writing down little vignettes about them, assuming by now that at some point they’ll intersect and I’ll work out why I’m writing about these people.

Right from my first novel, the process was very audial; I recited it all before I wrote it down and played with speech rhythms and so forth. It was quite a lot like writing music and I still do that.  I talk everything out loud and read it aloud and fiddle with the rhythms. That’s the fun of it really, for me.

I used to write late at night but I stopped because I was always falling asleep in my children’s beds reading bedtime stories and I’d wake up at four in the morning and think ‘Oh I did it again!’ So my son learnt to read rather precociously; he got so tired of me falling asleep. ‘It’s alright, I finished it’, he’d say when I took up the story next day.

But then I thought why don’t I get up at four o’clock in the morning and write then instead. I don’t know whether it was because I was closer to dream states but it made me feel braver about being more intuitive. I started writing in a way that became more patterned.

Talking of patterns, you have frequently used great artistic works as a recurring motif running through your novels. Temple of Delight had Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Juggling has Shakespearian comedy and this time, Sex and Stravinsky has the ballet Pulcinella. How does this come about? Does the work inspire the novel?

Mostly it happens quite unconsciously. This can sound very unconvincing when I say it, but what I do is work in this completely intuitive muddly mud-pie way.

In the case of Temples of Delight I thought, ‘Funny, everything is happening in threes in this book’, there were the three girls and the three boys and there is this very charismatic, slightly mad, captivating girl who captures Alice’s affections but is then supplanted by an equally compelling male person. Alice’s stammer dropped onto the page and then she noticed the ‘stammer’ in the Papageno song so there was some Mozartian stuff going on.

It was only after a while that I realised, ‘I know what you’re doing with this story – this is shadowing the story of The Magic Flute; such a weird story and kind of politically incorrect and as if written in a dream state. The opera has something one can’t define which is very powerful. I had some idea that it had to do with gender and unmediated desire. The book is full of sexual desire and…so really that connection placed itself quite unconsciously.

The same thing happened with Juggling. It seemed to fall into five parts with an ugly dénouement in the middle. I noticed very early on that the book was very acrobatical, that it seemed to be all about perpendicular and horizontal; people falling off spiral staircases, or there’s the boy who levitates and so on. Eventually I thought, this is taking the format of a Shakespeare comedy. It’s all about energy and balance, and once I’d realised that I thought, okay, I can be really brave at the end. I can do musical chairs and the characters can all hook up with the right people.

I know quite often reviewers talk about my intricate plots or sometimes they accuse me of plotting too much. But really the plots just drop themselves like acorns into the text without my being aware of it. Of course on some level it’s all stuff that one is unconsciously obsessing about in the back of one’s brain and it eventually works its way into the weave.  It’s like some kind of spider’s web. So, no, I don’t consciously base things on operas and plays and so on. But I obviously do obsess about them.

Are you able to say what it was that made the Stravinsky ballet Pulcinella the motif for your latest novel?

BT: As I said before, it’s a very intuitive thing and I get a feeling about the mood of a book, along with having some of the characters. I thought, this book is like a dance, it’s really balletic. There’s quite a lot about masks. I think one of the triggers was reading Stravinsky’s account of himself and Picasso as young men traipsing round Naples looking for a story for a Commedia dell’Arte ballet, which resulted in Pulcinella. Partly I thought, if you’re acting in a mask, those leather masks Commedia dell’Arte actors wore, then you can’t express emotion with your face, and so emotion becomes movement. I like the idea that the mask makes one stylise, and I had a sense that the book was a bit like a dance itself.

But then I put it by because it was getting much too hard for me, I was doing my usual staring into the dark, thinking, why do these two people both have names that begin with J, why this, why that. What is going on, and how does it all connect? So I put it by and I started writing Frankie and Stankie instead. That was much easier to write. I bought twenty-five school exercise books and wrote down this whole kaleidoscope of little stories from my early life. I’d decided to write only ‘true life’ stories, not make anything up, and also stick with small stories. I had such an instinct against writing one of those earnest, white liberal novels about South Africa, always in the hand-wringing position.

Once I’d finished it, I then thought, okay, now I’m going to go back to that hard novel because I’m beginning to see how it would knit together, and then my husband got very ill and I put it away for about three, four years, and finally I took it up again, and I thought, let me see if this book will still get up and dance for me. And I found that it would. It’s about being playful really, writing novels. Playing and energy.

Critics and readers have often commented on the lightness of tone in your books. But, like in Shakespearean comedies, many awful things happen – rape, abuse, violent deaths. Personally I often find that I’m more affected and shocked by these things than I would probably otherwise be, if you hadn’t maintained the incongruously light tone. You never seem to go for pathos. Is this something you very consciously do when writing and if so, is it difficult to maintain?

When I wrote Temples of Delight, I found the process very disturbing and the story powerfully sad. I remember splashing tears all over the page when Alice gets into bed with her dead friend. It was pretty gothic really, and operatic, but full of pain. Then some reviewers said how refreshing it was to have a book so happy, so frothy, and I thought: ‘You call that happy?’ She’s crossing the Atlantic with a lunatic. He’s got this child for her by an act of fraud; tampering with a will and lying to a priest. And The Travelling Hornplayer is about the saddest book one could read.

It’s all about comedy as ‘a better form of tragedy’, isn’t it, about having the energy and dexterity to face down gruesome things. Juggling was all about symmetry and balance and flying. It wasn’t about happy stuff, it was about the energy that’s needed to keep all the balls in the air, to create the illusion of something happy, even though you can’t be sure things aren’t all going to fall apart once the curtain goes down.

I don’t think it suits me to be earnest and I like restraint. I think readers of the books divide into those who understand that, and those who think I’m being inappropriately flippant about sad or horrible things. And I think: ‘No, no, I’m just practising emotional restraint.’ I also believe, as you say, that maybe the impact is greater if things are understated.

TL: Yes, I still remember that line, ‘as an act of the rape the episode was not of the most dramatic,’ in Juggling.

It’s a kind of tightrope walking act isn’t it? To get what you think is the appropriate tone. I try to get a sort of tragi-comic balance, which suits some readers better than others, I suppose. But it’s in my nature to feel that one mustn’t overwrite. Yes, it’s something I am aware of.

TL: Talking of tightrope walking, because of the South African setting of much of Sex and Stravinsky, you do inevitably end up facing the sensitive issue of race. In a previous interview with us Christopher Ricks said: “But then all great religious art is accusable of blasphemy, yet those accusations should not stick. So all erotic art is accusable of pornography. If the question doesn’t even arise then it must have played safe and nothing is more dangerous if you want to create great art than playing safe.” I often felt that you weren’t playing safe when you deal with racial matters in your writing. For example the character of Gertrude [a black South African servant who steals, is neglectful of her brilliant child and has started believing in her own racial inferiority] in Sex and Stravinsky is quite a difficult character I think…

Well, yes, but there’s no reason to believe that merely because someone comes from an oppressed group, she’s going to be pure in thought word or deed. Lots of employees steal in grossly unequal societies. It’s seen as a way to redress the balance.

The one thing that lingered from writing Frankie and Stankie that seemed to me to apply to this current book was that the ‘big’ story behind all these little stories was both how multi-ethnic the white community was, even given the racial caste system that divided us from black people. Any school class I’d ever been in was full of people who were first generation immigrants. They were Portuguese, Lebanese, Italian, German; every class was one third Jewish, there were lots of Greek immigrants, et cetera. That, and the fact that in all new world societies, people often have these very dramatic trajectories in which you visibly see them rising up or falling back, coming a long way from their origins. It interested me to follow such journeys in some of my characters. Also, in general, we live in this global world which is kind of scary and brutal and exciting, and just much more complicated than things used to be.

So I thought, taking characters with a background like Josh’s; someone who is the son of a trafficked convent orphan fallen on hard times, a boy who, rescued by a Liberal dissident family, comes to England on a scholarship. Or Jack the servant’s child. They undertake faraway journeys, but then they come together; the masks fall and they ‘see’ each other anew. It only struck me yesterday, that in a way maybe the book is a bit like The Tempest, in the way Prospero draws all these people to the island. Jack is the character who does this; he’s a sort of magical figure. I don’t expect him to be that realistic.  He’s the magnet who is going to draw them all back to this place, which unbeknown to them is actually the one-time servant’s cottage from which he started out.

I’d noticed, intermittently, when in late-era Apartheid South Africa, a slightly disturbing phenomenon in the households of well-meaning liberal white families who would have a maid who lived on the premises in a little cottagey hutch at the bottom of the garden and, being kind people, would not insist that any child the maid bore get instantly dispatched to the ‘homelands’* as the law required. Then gradually that child would be sort of seduced by the white family; by what it had to offer.

You might get a situation where, while the family’s own children would go to the neighbourhood state school, (and the state schools were pretty good because the Apartheid state was spending ninety percent of the education budget on thirteen percent of the children, i.e. the white children) of course the little black child wasn’t allowed, by law, to go to that school. So the child would either have to be dispatched to one of these ghastly rural ‘homelands’, or the family would pay for the maid’s child to attend a local private school. Twenty years earlier the Bantu Education Act had driven out all the rather good church-run schools for black children, but gradually some of the white private schools began cautiously admitting a few black children. They waited to see what the state would do about it, and, when nothing happened, they began admitting more. So you could get this odd situation sometimes where, for instance, a convent school would be ninety percent Muslim girls, whose parents then began to ask, ‘but why have our children got to go to Mass three times a week?’ And, in families like that of Jack’s mother’s employer, the white child of the family would be at the state school, while they would be paying to send the black child to a private school.

My daughter once quoted an incident she’d witnessed at a birthday party that such a white family was having for the little black girl who lived with her mother at the end of the garden. All the little private school friends came to the party, and the barefoot mother was serving them. She overheard the little black girl saying to her posh friends, ‘Do you remember when I used to be black?’ The masks in my book have something to do with confused identities.

The whole book seemed to be about masks and deception, and identities and masquerades… I suppose it’s a lovely idea that you can step into someone else’s life, or maybe get a second chance at finding out who you are and starting again. The boy Jack [in Sex and Stravinsky], having been sent to an elite pan-African boarding school in Swaziland, finds himself strongly attracted by French African culture, because he’s reacting against what he’s experienced in early childhood, namely British Imperialist racism.

TL: And French African culture looked at from a foreigner’s point of view would be more glamorous?

BT: All of those European colonizers were horrible in their own different ways, but I felt he would have that mindset. I enchanted myself, along with him, as he undertook his magical, secret journey through Africa to Senegal, which is a very beguiling place. I was drawn to the idea of making his journey seem romantic.

Thinking of Jack, I was talking to a young historian friend of mine some years ago, and I said, ‘I’ve got this character in my book who is really more a magical character, and quite shamelessly unrealistic’. I began to tell her about Jack and how he’d started out in the servants’ hutch and ended up in Milan, an intellectual in Prada shoes, writing about Dario Fo. She said, ‘But I taught that boy.’ As a lecturer, she’d gone into one of those London schools for the performing arts, to teach. ‘I had exactly such a boy from Durban in my class,’ she said. It’s reassuring when you find out that stuff you’ve invented occurs in nature. You have to believe in it yourself. Some of my friends were bothered by the boy who levitated [in Juggling], but I believed that he levitated; unless you believe things they’re not going to work, are they?

TL: Talking of all these magical things that happen in your novels, I was thinking how difficult it is to classify your writing – of course classification is something of an artificial and perhaps pointless business – but I find the way your books seem to defy classification quite interesting. Even though the characters seem quite psychologically real, and the dialogue seems realistic, it’s not realism, because so many surreal things happen. Have you thought about what genre your writing might be in, or how one might classify it?

BT: No, I haven’t much. I suppose because I was quite old when I started writing, and I was always too dozy to think, ‘I’m going to be a writer.’ When I was at university the English department was just obsessed with Leavis, and I remember reacting against that a bit, thinking, how can you say, ‘Here are these five great writers that you’re allowed to think well of, and everybody else is in some kind of sub-category.’ But I missed out on all the structuralism and what-not. I’ve never read any of the literary theory that certain academic critics assert have been my influences.  I had children, and made heavy weather of that, and somehow always seemed to be playing open house to everybody else’s children as well, so I think I just didn’t find time to read any fiction for about a decade.

So when I wrote my first novel, I made assumptions that came from way back, like the way I just bounced into the dialogue. A friend of mine said, ‘you didn’t waste any time on the scenery, did you?’ I had no idea that at the time it wasn’t fashionable to write a novel that was very much based on three-dimensional characters who would leap off the page. What you were supposed to be doing was tricksy things with plots and it was positively unfashionable to have characters who worked in any ‘real’ way. It only began to dawn on me quite slowly, that that was what the ‘literary’ books were doing. But now it’s me being written about in terms of ‘intertextuality’….

I just wrote, and afterwards I thought, ‘is it a novel?’ I had no idea about publishers, I had never heard of literary agents, and I stuffed my pages into an envelope without even a title and sent it to Cape. Cape wrote back declining it, so I put it back in the drawer and did nothing with it until six months later a friend said to me, ‘why don’t you send it to Gollancz?’ So I sent it to Gollancz, and they said yes. I had no idea that one publisher was different from another. Gollancz were very sweet to me, the book got wonderful reviews but for ages it was never in the bookshops. It was years before I began to feel in any way integrated with the literary world. Maybe it was good for me?

I realised very quickly that writing fiction was incredibly compelling and a gloriously playful thing to do; that it was somehow recapturing that pleasure one had in childhood, playing and inventing, or hiding in a shed with a book you couldn’t put down. I was very clear that what I was doing was for fun. For a while publishers said, oh, people will forget about you if you don’t produce a novel every two years. I thought, so what? I’ve never been ambitious.

So, in short, I wasn’t really aware of a need to classify what I did, and the models I had were very kind of… one feels embarrassed to say…. because all of us have our heads full of Shakespeare and Yeats, etc. But I’d catch myself thinking, ‘there’s something about the rhythm of that sentence. What is it?’ And then it would be Yeats, or Eliot – yet again. That’s the joy of having all this literary furniture in your mind.

There was that period when all those Magic Realist novels came out of South America and, while writing Juggling, I thought, ‘But we’ve got an English Magic Realist, and he’s the best, and he’s Shakespeare.’ So I suppose my genre is a kind of tragic-comic romance. It’s quite theatrical. I’m drawn to that. I like lyricism, and pastoralism, and also possibly because I come from South Africa, I am quite politically obsessed and a social realist as well, having spent a lot of my life around leftish, dissident people. It’s maybe a strange thing, trying to knit together that grittiness with the more pastoral dream-like stuff.

If you grow up, and you’re a bit aberrant, and you are open-eyed about the state – my sister and I woke every morning with our father swearing at the foreign minister on the radio – you very quickly develop a sort of instinct of defiance. I think I irritate some readers because they think I’m subversive and smart-alec. Some reviewers loved my first novel in spite of, as they said, this ghastly, messy, showy-off…bohemian family [the Goldmans]. I was quite surprised, because for me they were wish-fulfilment characters; the sort of people I wished I knew.

TL: The Goldmans are one of many Jewish families in your novels, although they tend to be agnostic and only culturally Jewish. I was wondering perhaps whether this was because your family, although not Jewish,  were ? I gather from Frankie and Stankie ? liberal dissidents and…

BT: Yes, that book was entirely a memoir: all real-life stories. My family is ethnically muddled. My mother was a bourgeois Berliner whose family had come from the Danish Friesian Islands. My paternal grandmother was a Sephardic Jew from Amsterdam who married a communist runaway from one of those strict little Protestant sects that you get in Holland where you read the Bible all Sunday and have twelve children and it’s all bonnets and long skirts and thou-shalt-not.

Also, as I said, South Africa was a hugely immigrant society. Certainly the intelligentsia and a large chunk of the professional class were Jewish; every doctor and dentist I ever had was Jewish. Plus, when I grew up there in the 1950’s, Jews were noticeably dominant in anti-racist politics. They were the people you could count on to have civilised views; they were often cultivated people who read books and played the violin. They believed in equality and human rights. Almost everyone I ever fell in love with was Jewish, as a result. They weren’t Zionists, or Jewish nationalists in those days.

TL: I thought, perhaps because you grew up in this intellectual unconventional left-wing household – all the hallmarks of a certain ‘type’ of Jewish family —

BT: My family was very unlike the Goldman family, for all that they were bookish and musical: for one thing, they were fanatically neat and tidy. I found myself very confined by that as a child. But many of my friends when I was growing up found being in my house refreshing. My school-friends were very drawn to my parents; in fact my best friend so stole the hearts of my parents, that they liked her a lot more than they liked me, for quite a while!

[Later, by email, Barbara added the following:

Re the Goldmans and my own parents. My Ma played the piano, but she was very shy and diffident, as was my dad in his way. They were not only tidy to a degree, along with being hygiene fiends, but they were pretty shy about sex and bodily functions – what I mean is, they would never have discussed such things, or gone in for public displays of affection. They were not much like those noisy, opinionated, mucky Hampstead people and would probably have given the Goldman family rather a wide berth. Incidentally, numbers of people, both known to me and un-known, have written to tell me that I obviously based the Goldmans on their family. Weird, isn’t it? One person – a Californian beach belle in her time – said to me, ‘I recognised myself in Jane Goldman, but why did you have me doing all that cooking? I don’t cook.’]

Another thing: something that began to change in South Africa since my time is that far more Afrikaners and people in other non-Jewish white groups began to think ‘No no, this system is wrong’. The again, a factor that has had a negative effect on the younger Jewish community is the increasing horribleness of Israel. I find it distressing trying to get my head around this shift, since I still have the expectation that Jews are going to be leftish, progressive, non-racist and open-minded people. I find myself reduced to deep gloom by the odd blast of knee-jerk defense of Israel’s actions.

As to the looking-in as an ‘outsider’, it becomes a part of you, if you have this somewhat multi-ethnic background. My best friend in Oxford comes from an old family in England and almost anybody you mention: ‘Oh, second cousin of mine…’  She’s related to everybody.  It must be very different to feel so rooted: to be in a place where your family has been for generations, to look around at your furniture and it’s all something that Mummy inherited from her great grandmother. Everyone in my family has always sort of left behind the houses and jewels and property and run from A to B with one small suitcase which they’ve usually dumped in a ditch on the way. I think it triggers fiction writing. If you have this feeling of not being quite sure about your identity, you explore that, and inevitably…

Well, I don’t consciously base my characters on anyone. Just occasionally for scene shifting or walk-on parts I’ll use some real-life person and that’s a very two-dimensional character. Ironically, the imaginary ones are the ones who have real life. But in some way I don’t understand, all the characters, regardless of age, position, gender and so on must be ways of trying out oneself. And that has to do with not quite knowing who you are. You’re always flowing into other people.

Click here for Part II

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