LOOK AT ME: An author Q&A
September 8, 2016
Today we publish the paperback of the stunning LOOK AT ME by Sarah Duguid. Showered with rave reviews upon publication, the novel has just been selected as a WHSmith Fresh Talent pick for this Autumn. Here, Sarah takes us through the inspiration behind her ‘unnerving, absorbing and wincingly well-observed’ (Sunday Times) debut novel.
What inspired you to become an author?
I can’t really remember ever making a decision to be an author. I do remember feeling offended when my A-level English teacher told me I should go into business because he reckoned I’d be good at it, and I thought ‘Well no, I’m going to be a writer.’ I suppose the thing that keeps me going as a writer is having something to say – the desire to speak – as well as having things that I am grappling with, whether that’s what form a novel should take; or questions of identity, the past, the sub-conscious, performance; whatever it is I’m thinking about at the time.
How do you personally feel about your two female leads, Eunice and Elizabeth?
Eunice is the grit in the oyster – she’s supposed to be annoying – and yet I can sympathise with her desire to find her place in the world, to find her home, her ‘tribe’. I suppose both Eunice and Elizabeth are trying to work out an identity for themselves, and while Eunice breaks into a family to do this, Elizabeth experiments with performance and sex. In Elizabeth and Eunice, I tried to create two characters that would absolutely clash. There was Elizabeth’s snobbery versus Eunice’s neediness; yet they are subtly similar. Eunice is also snobbish, particularly about her adoptive mother, while Elizabeth is very needy. They had to have similarities, traits within themselves they were refusing, in order to truly come up against the other. I wanted their clash to unravel them, I wanted the reader to wonder what they might do to one another, but I didn’t want them to kill each other – not literally anyway. And I didn’t want them squabbling over boyfriends, or calling each other fat.
Family dynamics are a key part of Look at Me – is this a subject that particularly interests you?
I think I just like the domestic as a dramatic space. I find it a good place to explore much larger questions. I keep trying to force myself out of the home, to write about the outside world but I keep finding myself back indoors, exploring the clash between language and feeling, the said and the unsaid, who’s right and who’s wrong. But the domestic hasn’t always been something I’ve been drawn by. As a child, I preferred sci-fi – Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin – as well as adventure stories. I wanted to read about the world beyond; to escape. As a teenager, I was addicted to the books of Ryszard Kapuściński. I used to flick between reading the book and gazing at the author’s tiny, black and white photo on the back cover. To me, he seemed maverick and wild, yet profoundly sensitive to both the written word and the world around him, poet as much as journalist. With a single word, he could bring alive his fear, the sweat on a soldier’s brow, the uniqueness of an African sky, as he told these incredible, impossible stories of war with a suicidal attunement to truth. But I did also spend a lot of time wondering about his family dynamics. Married, a father to a daughter, he had reasons to stay at home yet he claimed to find Europe stifling and spent most of his time away, flirting with death and – rumour has it – other women. If I was going to write a novel about a war reporter, I imagine I’d be indoors with them, exploring that rich territory, rather than out on the road counting tanks.
What other authors were your biggest influences in writing this novel?
I think every reader has a book that is a turning point for them, a book that they read in early teenage years that awakens them to reading, that makes them realise what books can do – that novel for me was Wuthering Heights. Nellie Dean, both observer and occasional participator, maintains an intense and slightly creepy gaze on the characters as they are both cruel and protective by turn; loving and hating in equal measure. My love of that book most definitely influenced Look At Me.
I like the closed world of Wuthering Heights. The geography of the novel is one of isolation so the characters are removed from the moral forces of wider Victorian society – and even the mellowing forces of some lighthearted, diverting company. In their isolation, they become almost institutionalised; so involved in the politics of what’s happening in their own home that the wider world fades, leaving them to find their own moral and psychological order. I tried to make a similar thing happen in Look At Me. I wanted to base my novel in London, and so in order to portray the isolation – Wuthering Heights transplanted from Yorkshire to the city – I used class. The characters within Julian’s household are a step out of time, unlikely to be friends with their neighbours, not quite in tune with the normal world. It’s a slight risk to write a book that tells the story of a posh, closed world because poshness and exclusion can antagonise more people than they attract, especially, I think, in Britain. Readers in this country seem to prefer their heroes to be working class or to be children (likability seems to be a big thing at the moment) but posh suited the story I wanted to tell.
Michèle Roberts read several drafts of Look At Me, and while I was writing I read all of her books, so she was definitely an influence. It strikes me that her work is – among many other things – a writing into literature of the female body. I’ve read a fair bit of French feminist theory and have always been struck by Hélène Cixous’ notion of making the female body present in literature. She links the female body with the act of writing; through this pouring forth of words you can uncover repressed impulses and desires and can create something specifically female. To my mind, Look At Me is a novel about the body, as much as anything else – that’s the reason I chose the quote from Fleurs du Mal at the beginning. I wanted to make the point that bodily freedom is associated with emotional freedom. Bodies in Look At Me are loved, abused, ignored, fetishised. They are treated as a path to freedom, to prelapsarian innocence and truth (by Julian for example) and yet the body is also a way through which the characters are ruined and ensnared. The mother was a drug addict; her son a healer. I made Ig a Reiki healer to show his vulnerability, to show how trapped he is, to show his magical thinking. He wants to believe he can enter the body in order to fix his mother’s madness and change the past.
What is your next project?
My next project takes the characters of Anna and David from Look At Me, and transports them to a remote and wild corner of rural England where they have to look after two troubled teenage girls. All might be fine, until they are joined by an old friend of David’s, an anthropologist who specialises in tribal ritual as well as a self-help charlatan – a dangerous man – who pushes everyone to the edge of life and sanity. I wanted to explore the fight between the conscious and unconscious, between order and disorder, between freedom and dependence while also – I hope – telling a gripping story.