IT all started on holiday in Scotland. Having been born in Glasgow, and, according to family legend learned to walk on the shores of Lough Lomond, Sarah Moss decided to return there, and experience a beautiful and remote place with her children.
“It mattered enormously to me,” she says, as we discuss her seventh novel, Summerwater. “They had been to Scotland as small children but not later on, and there is a particular place that is remote and difficult to stay in because of a lack of accommodation. I rented a lodge in a holiday park for a week’s hiking and thought it would be lovely.” It wasn’t. There was no Wi-Fi and no phone signal, and it rained relentlessly.
“The people in the holiday park weren’t talking,” she says. “And there was a feeling of everyone watching everyone else. That turns everything into a bit of a performance because you know there is an audience.”
They enjoyed the hiking but grew increasingly tired and tetchy because of the holidaymakers in a neighbouring chalet who hosted loud, late parties every night. And when the weather had failed to clear after six days, the family counted their losses, and went to stay with friends in Glasgow.
Returning home to Coventry, where she was teaching in the university, Sarah started writing about it.
“I set off thinking every time a character has an interaction with someone from another household, the baton passes, like an infection or a virus, and only one person would be carrying the point of view at a time. It was a playful distraction at the beginning,” she says.
“I wasn’t taking it very seriously. But when I was a few characters in, I wrote a proper plan and rearranged it to have a structure.”
A wondrous novel, Summerwater examines the conflicts, and prejudices of a society through these holidaymakers – covering the generations. It opens as Justine sets out on her daily dawn run – pounding up the Ben as if her life depended on it. This is so accurately portrayed – from the torture of putting on a running bra, to that moment when, miraculously, the body changes gear and finds a comfortable rhythm, that it’s obvious the author is writing from life.
Explaining that, for years, she had tried running, but failed at 5K, Sarah explains that since this changed, she’d become completely obsessive.
“I run 16 – 20 K every other day,” she says. “And it’s become increasingly important to me.”
The characters include a mum laid low with depression; a teenager risking life and limb as he kayaks through a storm; a young couple negotiating their different sexual needs, and an elderly couple reminiscing about the superior holidays and neighbouring families of the past. It becomes clear that the wife in that couple is tottering on the edge of dementia.
“That was frighteningly easy to write,” says Sarah. “I have aphasia when I’m really tired, and I thought of myself on one of those days and turned it up slightly. It was easy to imagine losing more words, and more objects and finding that the material world is less obliging.”
All the disparate families are united against a particular one; whose dress and behaviour doesn’t fit with convention. Prejudice rises, as the outsiders, from somewhere in Eastern Europe give nightly parties – the head-wrecking music ensuring that everyone loses out on sleep.
As the book moves from the interior of each of the character’s lives, a storm gathers pace. A corresponding sense of danger builds, and tension rises. Another party gathers pace, yet the dramatic ending came as a shock. The denouement is skilfully handled, as the characters show their strengths and weaknesses in unexpected ways.
“In the background I was thinking about Brexit,” says Sarah. “About a knife edge decision of those who want to go to the party, and those who want it to just stop. It doesn’t matter if its two percent or nearly fifty percent, as soon as it’s gone over its beyond redemption.” Brexit, for Sarah, was a total shock.
“I was astonished,” she says. “I didn’t stay up for the vote. I woke up and my husband was looking at his phone. I said, “Are we in or out,” and he said, “We’re out.” I said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I couldn’t believe it!
“At first, we were thinking, maybe we can have another referendum, but my friends started to leave very quickly, and it felt really real to me. We’d been in Iceland during the financial crisis, and I’d seen them agonise, do a kind of justice, and come back, and I thought, I’m not leaving this country to David Cameron. This has to be stopped! We spent two years marching, campaigning, and writing letters, but it was increasingly obvious that the dye had been cast.”
During this time, Sarah had placed a list on the fridge headed Don’t Forget. And one of her sons had written, To Emigrate! A list of possible countries was written beneath this, but it was an evening at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry that headed Sarah’s thoughts towards Ireland.
As it happens, I witnessed the moment. It was July 2018, and I was interviewing Sarah, alongside John Boyne on stage. Boyne was talking about his state of the nation novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and this led to much audience discussion.
Sarah applied for the position to teach creative writing at University College Dublin and set about relocating her family to Dun Laoghaire. We’re talking five weeks after the move – three after Sarah came out of her enforced self-isolation. They’ve settled well, she says, talking of the family’s love of the sea, and of hiking in the Wicklow mountains.
Writing of the move in a recent blogpost, Sarah admitted that one of the reasons she wished to live in Ireland, was for, The Craic! With the country still compromised with Covid, has she yet found it?
“Yes, I think so,” she says. “I’ve been so moved by how welcoming people have been. Every single person has been extraordinarily kind and friendly in way that naturally kind and friendly people in England might not be. We went to dinner with Anne Enright and some of my future colleagues in UCD, and absolutely everybody put me in touch with somebody else. And all of those somebody’s have got in touch and said, ‘Would you like to meet up?’”
She’s looking forwards to the start of the university term – and all going well will be able to begin by teaching her 16 students face to face. And meanwhile, she’s hard at work gathering ideas and thoughts as she experiments with the beginnings of her new novel.
“I’ve been thinking for a few years that I’d like to write the books you take to the shelter when the bombs are falling,” she says. “It’s another way, I suppose, of writing for the apocalypse but I didn’t want to write a post-apocalyptic or dystopian novel.
“I want to write a book whose purpose it is to be beautiful. The Birmingham Royal Ballet was close by me in Coventry. I always loved ballet and when we discovered that my elder son, surprisingly, rather enjoyed it as well, we started going a lot more. I was thinking how you watch a ballet, primarily, for the beauty of the thing and was thinking how that might be done in a novel.”
- Sarah Moss
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