The woman in the woods: Natalie Young writes for Waterstones

July 3, 2014

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Take one fresh divorce, add a dash of The Twits, a soupçon of French fiction and a hint of childhood memories – Natalie Young describes the recipe for her delicious novel, Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband to the blog team at Waterstones…

For a long time I had in my mind the image of a woman living alone in the woods. There was green about her, and stillness. I sensed that she’d travelled from the city, coming down the dark lane in a taxi from a small-town station. Something traumatic had happened to her in the city; and she’d gone to the woods to rest and recover.

I recognised the woods in my mind’s eye as the ones I had lived in as a child. At the age of nine or ten, I would roam in there, adventuring, wandering. I spent hours looking at moss and insects, and I worried myself with thoughts of what might be hiding in the trees. Around the village and on the edge of these woods, I played with my siblings. We ran and chased each other, running our bikes through the mud. In the woods there is often an echo. I sit at my desk now, with the drone of planes over London, and quite often hear in my mind the sound of children shouting in the woods. I wonder if, as adults, we are drawn to return to these places of echo with the sense of mystery that our childhood selves – busy being excited or terrified –didn’t grasp.

Yet children, it seems to me, have a response to the mysteries of violence that makes stories such as The Twits by Roald Dahl – about a mad man and a man woman trying to murder each other – not only delightful, but entirely reasonable. As a child, I would swallow such stories whole. And then run about in the woods with the language of survival on my lips. Tied to a tree and brandishing a sharp stick, I would shout: “Come near me and I’ll kill you.” If I were an animal, I wouldn’t be tied to a tree, I would simply have eaten you.

In the early months of 2010 my marriage was breaking down. We had two small children. I was anxious about pulling a family apart, and I was afraid of being alone. In the hustle and bustle of city life this was all happening very fast. And then, in my mind, just bobbing on the surface of consciousness, was a woman arriving at a small house in the woods, with nothing, sleeping on a small bed, waking, coming through the front door, early morning, bending down to a gnome that had been left on the step outside her front door. What was she doing there? Who was she? “You’re a writer,” I whispered to myself, “Write something down.” I bought a new notebook. I wrote:

She walked on the grass to the shed where the gloves were hanging, and the axe she would use to tear down the hawthorn. There was an old rake with missing teeth, a bracket of rusty wire. Anyone could come. They could crash through the woods and find her here.

For two years I was taken up by the practical challenges of divorce, raising children, and paying the bills. And then, at the beginning of 2012, I was thinking again about the woman in the woods. I read through the notes in my notebook. I began to put a picture together. There was a sense of pragmatism in isolation; and something to do with a turning point: a reckoning in a dark wood. I was thirty-five, the same age as Dante’s poet gone astray in a dark wood – I felt nothing but the gloom – and, like the poet, I was afraid to tell how “savage, wild” it was in my head. I thought again about the woman and tried to understand who she was by writing several characters around her – people coming to visit, a niece or nephew. But nothing stuck. I went back to the few original lines and asked myself what she was doing there. What had happened to her? Why did she have an axe to tear down a tree? Why was she so vicious with the old rake and wire? Why is she paranoid? Who is the “they” who will come to find her here?

I knew that I wanted the novel to be short and contained; structurally, it was going to be like Pig Tales by the French writer Marie Darrieussecq, in which a woman turns into a pig. I knew that it was going to be mostly, almost entirely, about my character and that writer and reader were going to be with her, as close to her as we could be: for most of the novel we would be inside her head.

She had been married. Her husband wasn’t there anymore. One afternoon, while sitting at my kitchen table with a cup of tea, I understood that I was going to write a book about a woman eating the body of her husband. I wrote down in the notebook: I have seen a woman killing her man with a garden spade. She’s going to cook him, and eat him. She is going to do this in order to become whole.

This realisation made me laugh in the way that terrifying, absurd things can. It was a reflex. I would recreate that laughter, then, I decided, in the experience of the book. I knew it was going to be a bit like The Twits, but with the subtleties and twists and dilutions and digressions of the adult mind, and I knew, too, that there was going to be a reckoning, and a metamorphosis.

I sat for a long time staring out of the window and wondered at the enormity of my task. At no point did I wonder if I had gone completely mad. I doubted my ability to write such a story, but I knew, too, that I wasn’t going to put it off any longer. In my mind the woods had become dramatically darker, but there was light too – humour and a strange kind of happiness – like the sunlight winking in the trees. I finished the tea and took a deep breath. That was that, then. I was “going in” – to face the wild animal in the woods. Metaphorically speaking, I put my boots on, and I armed myself with axe and saw.

This piece originally appeared on the Waterstones blog, written by Natalie Young. Read the article and see what Waterstones booksellers said about it here.


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