April 2007: Helen Cross is the author of two books—the critically acclaimed My Summer of Love, which won the Betty Trask Award in 2002 and The Secrets She Keeps. She’s currently down from Birmingham as a Writer-in-residence at the Mumbai University.
You’re a Writer-in-residence at the Mumbai University. How did that come about? How has your experience been?
I’d worked with the British Council in Indonesia. And, as part of their association with the Mumbai University they needed someone who could teach and is a writer. I teach at the Leeds University and so I fit the bill.
It’s been amazing here. I teach a creative writing class that comprises of MA students, BA students and a few people from the British Council’s writing group, The Writer’s Circle. I am astounded at the quality of students here.
At a creative writing course, you should be learning confidence as much as you’re learning technique. That’s what I’m trying to do with the students here—give them the confidence to tell their story. A lot of Indian students are more conscious of ‘Oh, what if my parents read this?’ but that’s something that everyone has to get over. Becoming a writer is about standing up outside of family and expectations and risking not only the disapproval of your families and parents and friends, it’s also bad reviews, the literary establishment not liking what you’ve said, people not understanding what you’ve done, or it not being the right time for it.
So once you have the talent to write and have learned how to write, the next step is to gain the confidence to say what you believe to be true about the world.
My Summer of Love is based where you grew up. How much of it is autobiographical?
Well, it is absolutely set in the area where I was born and brought up which is an area of England called East Yorkshire. It’s where my parents and my family live—I’ve lived there for 18 years and I go back there very regularly. So the geography of the place is very much there and the characters are people that I very much knew and grew up with. It’s about a girl who meets a very wealthy family and becomes involved with them. And I knew a very wealthy family and I had some dealings with them. Some of those things happened to me, but that isn’t my story—or I wouldn’t be here with you, I’d be in a long-term institution somewhere. (laughs)
Likewise, The Secrets She Keeps is a story about a young boy who goes to work for a family as a nanny. When I was 18, I went to Manhattan and I worked as a nanny. But it’s a boy now and he’s in England. So you’re kind of working with material you know about. It’s about wanting to say something as a writer and that’s when you transform it into more than itself.
For me, writing is a mix of memory and imagination. Memory’s where the truth of people’s lives really lies: the things that happened to them, their relationships with their parents, their families, their attitudes and their politics. But one must make it something more, craft it, make it art through one’s imaginative capacity. It’s a delicate blend of memory and imagination that I like in writing. Things that are true but also crafted.
My Summer of Love was made into a film by acclaimed director Pavel Pavlikovski and won the Best British Feature at the Edinburgh Festival. What was that process like for you—were you a part of the filming at all? Was it difficult letting go?
I wasn’t part at all of writing the script because it didn’t have a script. The director, Pavel Pavlikovski is a very interesting man, who’d done a film that I’d really liked. Initially, there was talk of My Summer of Love becoming a two-part television drama. I was a bit alarmed about that because I thought they’d sensationalise the story. Then Pavel showed me a very different take on it, a very artistic take and he worked largely through improvisation. So they had the book and the actors and they created a world in the sort-of way a writer does, by imagining.
As a writer you’re not really visualising things: I couldn’t have told you absolutely how the characters looked, but I could have told you what their interiority was, what their consciousness was. With film it’s all visual, not subtle in the way a book is. A book goes from one person’s head into another persons head—no one’s going to have the same My Summer of Love as a reader because everyone’s creating it in their minds. But when it becomes a film and everyone has the same thing.
It was a bit disorientating, watching someone transform your imaginative material into the real world. But it’s a beautiful, poetic film. The book itself is very poetic—the imagery and the language all evoke a very melancholy mood and the film captures that.
Your debut novel created quite a stir and won the Betty Trask award. How did that shape yours and others' expectations for your next book?
The thing about publishing is that it takes ages—a book takes about a year to come out. So by the time the first book came out and won the award, I’d already finished the second one. I’ve been quite lucky with the award from this society of authors, the rave reviews and the book being translated into quite a lot of languages.
People did expect the second book to be similar to the first. But I feel as writers you’re not really following anything, just honouring your own ideas. So the second book was very different—it was set in Yorkshire but is quite a different story. Luckily, I wasn’t affected by what people wanted me to do.
You’ve finished writing your third novel. What’s it about?
It’s about a young Muslim man, living in England, and an older English woman who’s got a daughter. How they start off distrusting each other and how, despite the wishes of their own communities they fall for each other. It’s told through their individual voices and the voice of the woman’s 11-year-old daughter.
Race is a big issue in England. Birmingham, where I live is a very multicultural area—lots of Indian, Pakistani and Somali people. But it’s an uneasy culture: people don’t know how to integrate. Should they be integrating into British culture or embracing their own cultures. There’s a lot of racism in English society but there’s also a lot of ignorance which breeds racism, which is often not what is intended.
Birmingham’s one of the first ‘Minority Majority’ cities in the world where the majority of the people are from the minorities and the indigenous white population is the smallest. It’s fascinating and very different from where I was brought up in Yorkshire which is a totally white, working class old-style culture.
When did you start writing? And what actually made you give up your day job and say, 'Okay, I’m going to write now'?
I’d thought I could do it since I was very young. I was good at writing and at drama. So when I left university, I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon and I worked with them for four-five years. While I had a job, I was doing quite a bit of writing—short stories. But I also knew that in order to concentrate fully, in order to give your mind over to a story, you have to make the decision to devote yourself to it. And I also thought that if I don’t just go for it, it would always be ‘Oh, something that I could have done if only I had the courage to do it.’ So when I was 28, I gave up my job.
I went to the University to do an MA in Creative Writing and I spent a year writing short stories and attending classes and then when I finished that course, I wrote My Summer of Love.
How do you write?
It is hard. It takes a long time.
My Summer of Love took about 18 months to write, and I was writing pretty consistently. And my second novel took another 18 months to write. The key to writing novels is to finish them—so many people start novels but don’t get to the end. It’s only when you get to then end of a novel that you realise what you’re actually writing about. Only then can you go back and make a new draft and edit it and make sense of it. But people get stuck in the middle and they kind of wait around for some inspiration, which isn’t going to come. You get to the end and you realise what you’re trying to say and then you go back and redraft. A lot of writing novels is redrafting, adding this, taking this away: it’s like sculpture. The way the sculptor finds the form in the middle of a block of marble, that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re waiting for the story to come through in a more coherent way.
I write the first draft by hand because there’s this link between the brain and the fingers. That’s why handwritings are so unique. And I don’t throw anything away—there might be that little bit if gold dust hidden in there. In the end, you do have to put it all on a computer just to shake it up a bit, but I do most of my work by handwriting.
Your favourite books and authors…
I like this American writer called Lorrie Moore who is a storywriter. I like a lot of short story writers and poets. There’s this English writer called Laura Heard. I like people who write with a more politicised edge. I like Dorris Lessing—she’s a maverick in English writing. I like George Orwell, always liked what he had to say about England.
I like writers who have something to say about the world that it is, not just about generalised ideas about world matters or violence. I like books that are tied to a location, a people and a place. Books that look at not just what characters are like on their own, but what they’re like in relation to other people and what they’re like in relation to society. How society sort of forms them and shapes them. My books always try to have a bit of a social edge, how these characters are formed by the world that they’re living in; the attitudes to class, the attitudes to women, all those things have an influence on the character.
So you’re a feminist writer…
I probably am. People don’t really ask you that in England because they presume that everybody is because it’s kind-of beyond that point. It’s interesting; here everybody is interested in that because feminism here is a much more dynamic and active force, isn’t it?
Maybe because feminism has done what it had to do in the West…?
Yes it has, I think. In England you now have what is called post-feminism. People are worried about what feminism has done. There’s a lot of anxiety about a lot of highly educated independent women, who can’t get husbands and don’t have any children because they’re so tied in with these huge careers. Whereas here feminism is a very important and much needed force. I can’t ever imagine thinking that a woman can’t do absolutely everything, intellectually and socially, that a man could do. I can’t imagine anyone believing that a woman is in any way inferior.
The struggles that women writers in India and women generally have to overcome here are very different to what we are used to now in England. We’re in a very different stage. You kind of tend to forget the frustrations of women who are tied to pre-feminist ideas of what women should be; educated women who just have to get married and look after kids. That’s an absolute hell for an educated intelligent woman.
But England and America, and most westernised countries have become sort-of dangerously individualistic, which is the flip side of the situation, and that leads to a kind of loneliness in people, isolation. It’s not the model that Indian feminism or anyone would want. The bonds of freedom can break down so far that people are isolated.
An incredible thing about Indian society, to me, seems to be the warmth of people and the communal sense. People have a sense of responsibility towards one another. We don’t see so much of that in England.
Here people have been so welcoming of us, my children as well. While I hope that these people will get such a warm welcome in England, I doubt it because we’re not used to welcoming people the same way, into our homes. Kendra, my five-year-old, has her own group of friends who call for her and take her out every evening: those things don’t happen so much in England anymore. People are frightened of their children being outside on the street and frightened because the world isn’t really a community anymore, just lots of little individuals. That’s something I write quite a lot about as well, where all this individualism is going, fragmenting society.
So tell me, have you got the Bombay Diarrhoea yet?
Well I kept thinking that we’re bound to get something, the children at least, but we’re all surprisingly healthy. We eat a lot of Indian food at home in Birmingham so we’re all kind of used to spicy food.
An edited version of this interview appeared in DNA in April 2007.