S: The title, An Intimate War, immediately encapsulates the essence of the novel – how deliberate is this?
D: Completely deliberate. The title had to capture opposite extremes – the dark and the light, and the fact that our deepest battles tend to be our most intimate ones.
S: The couple in the novel remain unnamed throughout, yet this does not seem to matter, as, in a sense it adds to the novel’s universality. Why did you choose to do this?
D: We don’t need to know the names of these characters because they dominate the story, and yes I did want to say that this could be every man and woman. Making them nameless also increases the intimacy, in a way the whole story is a private conversation, a long love letter between the woman and her man.
S: The narrative is bolstered by a fine take on the everydayness of relationships: the discarded socks, dirty washing, the shoes on the bed, his ‘coke and smoke’ addictions, her private chocolate scoffing. The seeming banality of which lives are made of. Did you do this deliberately to balance the extraordinarily powerful scenes of longing, lust and desire?
D: I don’t think it was deliberate, it just felt right. I think many decisions one makes as an author are not conscious ones. But having put in those everyday scenes I could see that they belonged in the story, made it more true to life.
S: The narrator is an artist, and her work seems to mirror the ebbs and flows of her relationship. An enduring theme in the novel is the artists’ need to not to ‘look away’ (for example when she encounters the body on the beach), but her lover’s jealousy and insecurity gradually strangles this. Talk a bit about how your work as a fine artist influenced this aspect of the novel.
D: I think most artists and authors explore aspects of themselves in their work. Before beginning to write this story I had virtually given up painting because it seemed irrelevent and frivolous and self indulgent, so in some way I was trying to find a way back to my painterly self through the narrator’s journey.
S: Yet, as the emotional turbulence increases her work becomes steadily darker, she stops painting ‘decorative’ watercolours and experiments with deeper themes and imagery – for example the painting of the woman with a head like a cracked egg-shell, and towards the end of the novel, the burning doll collection. Are you trying to say that artists need turbulence and pain to dig deep inside themselves and produce great art – that in a sense the relationship that steadily erodes her self-esteem is the making of her career? (Interesting paradox!)
D: Yes I do think that you need turbulence to produce great art. Certainly if you look at great artists throughout history, they tend to be tortured souls. I’m probably saying in the book that art can save you from yourself, you can exorcise your demons through making art, but you pay a price. I do believe that art making is a very powerful, liberating process. Neurosis is the failure to entertain the artist within..
S: The theme of jealousy is particularly well-drawn and relatable and mirrors the narrator’s own private demons – the cloud of shame under which she grew up and which she struggles to shed. They both have issues that have bled into their relationship. Is this why they are drawn to each other in the first place? Two broken halves that can never successfully heal? (Like the broken sculpture in the end of the novel that needed sunlight and glue to hold it together?)
D: This couple are entangled in a classic codependent relationship. Their particular insecurities are perfectly matched, keeping them chained to each other. She needs a dark and dangerous man to make her feel alive, he needs a woman to soothe his troubled soul. She grew up in a home where the slime of life was never allowed to surface, in his childhood all kinds of shit happened.
S: Love and desire as addiction. In some passages the narrator is unable to quit seeing her lover, even after he spurns and humiliates her. Her desire for him is as irresistible as the next drink to an alcoholic. Why does she keep allowing him back in her life?
D: Why do alcoholics drink when they know they’re destroying themselves? Addiction to a person is very real.
S: Children. You struggled whether or not to include children as characters in the novel. Why did you choose to write them in in the end?
D: I wanted my characters to be well rounded, believable. Having children gave them more substance. The children also in the end played a profound role in the novel, they provided the voice of reason, as a counterbalance to the narrators chaotic and crazy emotional life.
S: At times, the reader feels frustration with the female narrator – she’s locked into a relationship that she’s powerless to resist, even though intellectually she knows it’s damaging to both her and the emotional ‘roots’ of her children. Yet at the same time the reader is always on her side. How do you feel about this?
D: I hope the reader is always on her side, but I suspect some readers will hate her for being so weak willed. I’d love it if some readers were on his side, but I guess that’s asking too much!
S: He is a man who has been brought up by ‘women who hate men’. This goes someway to explain his behaviour, yet he seems to be unable to get past this, and it’s almost as if he is punishing her for loving him. Is this accurate?
D: He’s not punishing her, he’s punishing women. She happens to be the one in the firing line. A lot of men have anger against women because of their own ambivalent connection to their mothers.
S: The sexual scenes between the two protagonists are extremely candid and honest – they are vital for an understanding of the narrator’s enduring addiction to her lover – yet they do not stray into the overtly erotic, which is a very difficult balance to pull off. Was this your intention? Your views on sexuality in fiction, in art?
D: If by overtly erotic you mean deliberately arousing sexual desire in the reader, then I agree, this was never my intention. The candid sex scenes always serve the story, which is quite different from mainstream erotic fiction, which tends to be collection of sex scenes with a story tacked on top. What I find really gratifying is that the best reviewers, those that totally get the book, hardly mention the sex. They also don’t use the word ‘abuse’ when referring to the relationship between the lovers, which pleases me, because the relationship is much more complex, these are two wounded souls trying to heal themselves and each other.
S: Memoir versus fiction. The novel has the feel of an intensely personal, intimate and wholly believable account of a relationship, yet this is fiction not memoir. How close is the line between the two in your opinion?
D: Most first novels tend to be grounded in the author’s life, An Intimate War is no different. But as a novelist you get to play with your material and transform it. I enjoyed this process immensely. I didn’t want to write memoir. As an artist that would have been too restricting – I wanted to create something new.
S: How long did it take you to write?
D: I started writing it about 13 years ago, but worked on it intermittently inbetween other writing projects.
S: How many drafts did it go through?
D: I don’t really know, the way I work is quite organic. I didn’t finish one draft and then start another, I was always fine tuning pieces. A first novel is like a training ground. Nobody can teach you to write a novel, you learn by trial and error. A good analogy is carving a sclpture – you start with this amorphous mass of material, you slowly whittle it away until you reveal the essential form beneath.
S: How did you find the editing process?
D: Relatively painless. I had done so much selfediting that by the time the manuscript reached Helen my editor, it needed what she called ‘a light edit’. I think the author/editor relationship can be a precarious one, but I really valued Helen’s insightful editing. She helped make it into a better book.
S: And from a purely stylistic view-point, the punctuation is spare and there are no speech marks. Why did you make these choices?
D: All my decisions as a writer were based on the one question – How can I increase the sense of intimacy and claustrophobia? I left out commas to add a feeling of breathless intensity. Leaving out speech marks seemed the right thing to do, I think this had the effect of blurring the inner and outer dialogue, her thoughts and her actual speech.
S: What feeling do you want the reader to take away with her after she puts the book down?
D: I want the reader to feel less alone, which is I think the purpose of great books. A quotation I love, from Robert Atkinson – ‘A good story allows us to wrestle our demons, dance with our angels, make plans with our inner guides, and ultimately connect with our soul.’
S: It was a testing journey getting published. Why was it important to you to see it in print?
D: Artists are driven by a compulsion to tell their stories. I had this big story and I had to tell it, and the telling only makes sense if I’m talking to an audience. So to get people to read my story it needed to be in print. I also hoped that through my honesty, I could help other struggling couples deal with their intimate wars.
S: What are you working on now?
D: Arts and culture textbooks for schools, and another novel which focuses on women and the beauty trap.