Nell Stevens on writing Bleaker House
Part memoir, part travelogue, Bleaker House is a hilarious, heartwarming book about the lessons Nell Stevens learnt whilst becoming a writer.
Home to more penguins than people, Nell Stevens thought Bleaker Island in the Falklands would be the perfect place to spend three months writing her novel without distraction from the 'real world'. Her debut book, Bleaker House is not that novel. Instead, it's a memoir and travelogue about how close the narrow spaces between real life and fiction are and, in the end, about failing to write a novel, but finally becoming a writer. Find out more in this interview with Nell Stevens.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Writing was always what I came back to. As a child, I had brief phases of thinking I wanted to be a singer, or a photographer, but the rest of the time I wanted to write. I remember being convinced that if I hadn't published my first novel by the time I turned thirteen, I'd be a washed-up no-hoper. I sent a manuscript to an agent when I was twelve, who very gently suggested I wasn't quite ready for publication.
Why do you think it was so difficult to write the book you went to Bleaker Island to write?
I don't think any creative endeavour could survive the amount of pressure I put on that book. Any time I was unhappy or uncomfortable during my time in the Falklands, I'd think, “God, this book better be worth it.” That sort of thinking does not produce great works of literature. The novel buckled under the pressure. I see now that it did serve its purpose in a different way, though: it gave me something to do, something to think I was doing, while I was having the experiences and learning the lessons that would eventually produce Bleaker House.
Which writing do you find yourself returning to and why?
I am always moved by restraint, by writing that never shows its hand. Chekhov advised that, ‘when you depict sad or unlucky people, and want to touch the reader's heart, try to be colder — it gives their grief as it were a background, against which it stands out in greater relief. … Yes, you must be cold.' I am drawn to writing that puts that into practice. Maybe it's strange, considering the goal of my own writing is often to make people laugh, but the books I love most are the ones that make me cry.
Is there a book you wish you'd written?
I'm a frustrated novelist who seems to keep producing works of non-fiction, so there are countless new and exciting novels I wish I'd written. I am constantly in awe of Ben Lerner's fiction; my former teacher, Sigrid Nunez, writes gems of books that I have to remind myself not to hate because I love them so much. If I could have written as big, as scorching, and as heart-breaking a novel as Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, I'd be feeling quite content right now.
Can you recommend a ‘forgotten classic', a book that you think deserves more attention than it has received?
Part of me feels so proprietorial about this book that I don't want to tell everyone, but Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds, while not exactly forgotten, is definitely under-read and underappreciated. It is one of the most brilliant Victorian novels, with a female protagonist who is fierce, mendacious and cut-throat, a Scottish castle and a missing diamond necklace. Sporadically, I think about trying to adapt it into a film script; please, nobody do this before I get around to it.
You've just written a new book, was the process easier this time?
In some ways it was easier: I learned a lot from working with my editors on Bleaker House; I was more confident about how to shape and pace the story this time around. And the horrifying anxiety of the unpublished writer that haunted me before—Am I wasting my time? Will anyone ever read this?—was lessened, because I knew at very least my agent would read it. That said, I think with every new project there is a period of learning from scratch how to do that specific thing. Just because, by the time I finished working on Bleaker House, I had learned how to write Bleaker House, didn't mean that I knew how to write this new book. I had to teach myself how to do it, and embrace feeling like a beginner all over again.
Can you tell us a little about your new book?
It is a book about falling in love. And it is a book about Elizabeth Gaskell. It borrows from Bleaker House the patchwork technique of piecing together different stories and different kinds of writing. I wrote about a transatlantic love affair I had while I was doing my PhD, and about my PhD research, which looked at Elizabeth Gaskell and other nineteenth-century writers in Rome; alongside my own narrative is the story of Gaskell herself, and her relationship with an American writer she met in Italy. Really, it's a book about reading: the way we read other people, the things they write and the things they do.