Sarah Moss and her editor discuss her novel Summerwater, Brexit anxieties and the strangeness of holidays
Summerwater is the seventh novel from acclaimed novelist Sarah Moss. She sat down with her editor Kishani Widyaratna to discuss her writing process, being inspired by rainy Scottish holidays and why the structure of a novel is like a 1980s climbing frame.
Told from the perspectives of twelve people cooped up with their families in a rainy Scottish holiday park, Summerwater is a tense, often funny and ultimately devastating novel which explores what it takes to bring us together in a divided society. Sarah Moss’s seventh novel was inspired by a rainy week’s holiday in a Scottish holiday park, and addresses themes of isolation and division which feel particularly pertinent as we live through these unprecedented times. Here, Sarah and her editor Kishani Widyaratna discuss how she approaches her writing, collective anxieties and how history has shaped us all.
KW: Sarah, I am so pleased to have the opportunity to discuss your latest novel, Summerwater, with you. Could we please start with you describing the novel for those who have not yet read it?
SM: Summerwater is set over the course of one wet day on a holiday park in Scotland on the banks of a loch and follows six families. You hear from one of each, six in the morning and six in the afternoon. They have little in common except for being the kind of families who might choose to go on holiday in a Scottish park. And then there’s one family of strangers who are playing loud music late at night and annoying most of the others.
KW: Those who have read the novel will find that description incredibly restrained, as you are not giving much away at all. Could you describe where the idea for Summerwater began?
SM: The story itself is not true, but the idea began when I and my family stayed for a week in a chalet in a Scottish holiday park and it rained for the entire week. Well, it probably rained for the entire week. It rained for the first six days and then we gave up and went home, so who knows, maybe the sun came out on the seventh day. There was one family there having very loud parties every evening even though it was 10 miles down a single-track road and there wasn’t conceivably anybody to party with, and yet somebody was turning up at one o’clock every morning. And you know how fascinating the visitors’ books in cottages are? I read back through the visitors’ book and there were various tight-lipped, very British comments about the holiday park being a bit noisy at night sometimes. Clearly, it was an ongoing issue. Nobody had explicitly said these people are driving me crazy or it was unbearable or I hated it. There were just these very clipped descriptions of some noise on the park at night.
I thought about the possibility of a novel while we were there. There was time to do quite a lot of thinking because it also turned out that there was no internet access and no phone signal there. At the time, I was working on a much more serious book that was much harder to write. So Summerwater started off as a distraction project from that difficult other novel. I was writing it on the side rather sneakily and then it took over and became the main thing.
KW: Something that’s interesting about this book when you consider it in comparison to the rest of your novels is that you’ve chosen to write what could be described as a point-of-view novel or a choral novel. The reader is invited inside the minds and perspectives of twelve different characters in the course of the day. Why were you attracted to that form for Summerwater?
SM: It didn’t feel like a choice so much as a consequence of the location and the idea of the book. Because I was interested in these six lodges and the spatial relationship between them, when I think about this book I have a real sense of almost a magnetic field that these lodges sit in, and the relationships between them in the space of the trees and the air and the rain and the creatures between them, as though if you move one, they’ll all move.
And that feeling of a kind of an architectural dance or spatial aspect between them meant that a novel that dwelled with each of them would have to be from different points of view, because part of the point is that they’re not in any meaningful relationship with each other, there’s very little communication between them. So I’m thinking almost about opposing magnets, you know, when you try and force magnets together and they push away, it’s almost like having six of those. So because of that it was always going to have to have multiple points of view.
KW: That leads us on nicely to a question about community. Summerwater is set over one day with this very particular cast of 12 characters in their six lodges, and something that we’ve spoken about previously is this idea that that group of people in that isolated setting form a makeshift community. I wonder if you set out consciously wanting to explore the idea of community or if that arose out of the narrative?
SM: It arose, and I was thinking as you asked me that question that I’m not sure that I set out consciously to write about anything, ever. Which maybe can’t quite be true. But I set out to write about place and character and familiar stories and the rest of it forms around those. So sometimes when I’m writing, and particularly in the early drafts, I think to myself that there’s no politics in this, this isn’t about anything except a bunch of people doing a bunch of stuff and it has no wider meaning. I thought that even with Ghost Wall and I thought it again with Summerwater because the themes appear to me at quite a late stage.
KW: So what is it that you would say drives you to write a particular narrative? Is it that you become so interested in a situation or a cast of characters that appear to you that you feel you must pursue them in writing?
SM: Yes, absolutely that. It becomes . . . I was going to say compulsive but that sounds like a more personal relationship, but it becomes necessary, it becomes overwhelming and fascinating. And it always feels more as if I’m finding things than if I’m making them. I know that’s not true and I don’t believe in any kind of mystical idea of inspiration. But the experience of writing is much more to do with uncovering, disclosing, recognising than the making out of nothing.
KW: You described how you were at first writing Summerwater as a kind of distraction for yourself while ostensibly focusing on a more challenging book. I’m interested in how many books you are engaged in writing at one time, or how many narratives you are uncovering at one time? And how does it come to be that one becomes the most necessary?
SM: I think very often I’m thinking about two projects at a time. And my sense of which one is the dominant one or the most important one will often shift. Partly because of this terrible Yorkshire Protestant work ethic I tend to think that the one that is least appealing to me is the one I should be working on. But usually the one that’s most playful turns out to be the one that’s actually better and that’s interesting because it means that often my writing, almost always in fact, feels provisional. I would be working on something but not really working on it, or telling myself I’m not really working on it, as if I’m doing it with my other hand out of the corner of my eye. That’s usually the more interesting one than the thing that sits in the middle of my desk.
KW: I am struck by your use of the word ‘playful’, and the idea that the book that feels the most playful will be the one that you end up pursuing. I wondered what it was that you mean by the word playful and how that relates particularly to Summerwater?
SM: It’s an experiment undertaken in a spirit of exploration more than achievement, where I’m doing something to see what happens. That’s much more vital work than doing something because you think you know what’s going to happen. And it’s quite a high-risk strategy, it means I end up deleting a lot because, if you do things to see what happens, often what happens isn’t a particularly good idea. But I’m really committed to the idea of writing as a form of serious play, experiment, investigation.
In Summerwater specifically, I feel quite pleased with that game of 12 characters in a day. It’s not that each gets exactly two hours. But I like that sense of imposing restrictions or putting in a framework and then playing with it. And as I speak, I’m thinking about a climbing frame or something like that: here is the thing and now play with it, I was thinking about those – you may not remember them – there were climbing frames in the 1980s that were absolutely an accident waiting to happen. They were a dome with a point at the top and usually concrete underneath and you could fall off and smash your head, which was part of the fun, but I’m thinking about that kind of structure for play. In writing, usually nobody gives you a climbing frame, you have to invent your own, but you can do that before you start writing. And then you play on what you’ve got.
KW: I think that’s very interesting because when we were editing we spoke about that structure in the 24 hours of the day and the 12 people, and them being a series of divisions that you’re working within, and how important they were for you in terms of the form of the book. Summerwater is unnervingly tense and beautifully propulsive, and in that way it feels like it follows on from Ghost Wall, which is also a very claustrophobic novel. I am curious as to whether the foreboding atmosphere of Summerwater was as intentional a choice as the structure or whether it arose from writing the situation the characters were in?
SM: I think it came out of the situation. I plan character and location and event, but I don’t plan atmosphere, I feel as if that’s part of what I’m discovering as I go along. If we put these people in this climbing frame, on this lake with this weather, then let’s see what happens.
KW: Something awful?
SM: But it doesn’t have to be and I wanted to keep open the possibility that it might not be.
KW: We’ve spoken before about our mutual love for Shirley Jackson and how her fiction is known for its sinister horror, but also for her off-kilter humour. That duality feels present in Summerwater also, in that you have these moments of escalating menace, like when a teenage boy is caught in dangerously choppy waters in his kayak in the middle of the loch and might capsize, and then you have these other moments of great humour, including a cringe-inducingly funny sex scene. Do you think some might be surprised to find this combination of wry humour and unsettling suspense?
SM: I think they’re inseparable. I mean, there are a couple of things I think about when using humour, but again, it doesn’t feel like something you use so much as something you find, and maybe almost a survival strategy. Things can’t not be funny, even in intensive care things are funny. Not many things but maybe things that wouldn’t be funny anywhere else. But the point where nothing’s funny is the point of death and it is there and we do come to it, but it’s pretty late in the game.
KW: Something that I and other readers really love about Summerwater is how vividly distinct and unique each of the characters are. You have people from across the UK and of different generations – children, teenagers, young adults, and people in retirement. Was that something that felt important to you?
SM: Yes, absolutely. I think it is what makes the project interesting, the relationships between them and what they can’t see about each other and the way that they’re all, in ways they don’t necessarily recognise, formed by their own historical experiences and their moments in time and place. And even though they are pretty similar moments and places, they make people in quite different ways.
KW: This disparate cast of characters being forced together in isolation allows you to explore questions of what binds people together and also what separates them. These feel to me both central questions in the book and questions which feel especially pertinent right now, in light of growing xenophobia, the national divide over Brexit, increased political polarisation, the list goes on. That relevance to our current political moment might lead some people to describe Summerwater as a state-of-the-nation novel. How do you feel about that description?
SM: What the characters think binds them together, and what they think separates them may not always be the same thing. It’s always flattering to have the book described as a state-of-the-nation novel isn’t it, because it’s usually Men of a Certain Age who have their books described like that. So I will happily take it. I was thinking about Brexit while I was writing it because everybody was thinking about Brexit while I was writing it – it was kind of all there was to think about. But I’ve been thinking about it again in relation to COVID and lockdown and imagining that every writer who has a book coming out this summer is suddenly explaining why their book is really about COVID. But I think it’s about what happens when there’s an emergency, when even people as similar to each other as the people in this book are deeply divided by actually quite fine gradations of class and wealth and political allegiance, whether they’re English, whether they’re Scottish. I mean, heresy to say it but the difference between English and Scottish is globally really not very big at all. The difference between the richest characters in this book and the poorest ones is not very significant by any global standard. They’re all kind of vaguely middle class, some probably upper middle class and some probably lower middle class, and they’re all white. So the differences between them are actually small and yet they’re totally divided generationally, and particularly over Brexit and particularly over Englishness and Scottishness. The question of the book, which also actually turned out to be one of the questions of 2020, is whether in all our division and with all of our fear of each other and our distrust, are we still able to respond in an emergency?
And I think that’s also the question of COVID: what will the young be required to sacrifice for the old? What will the young be willing to sacrifice for the old? It’s interesting, both in Ireland and England, watching all the old narratives about race and minorities coming back. To see people question if this is a disease spread by poor people, or by Muslims, or by foreigners, or by irresponsible teenagers who will kill their grannies in order to have a drink with their friends, or maybe actually we’re sacrificing the young to save the old. These decisions will appear very quickly in the discussion about how we respond to an emergency that threatens everybody, though in different ways.
KW: That’s fascinating. I hadn’t thought of that echo of the novel now in 2020, that the emergency that people are having to respond to at this moment is COVID and how that mirrors the emergency that requires a response from the holiday park in Summerwater. I think a link that some would have identified in the book reading it at the beginning of the COVID crisis is the sense of isolation and being in lockdown, and how our experience of lockdown is emulated by each family in the novel as they are trapped in their chalets by the relentless downpour and find themselves watching each other nosily or suspiciously. What role does that sense of individual isolation play in the book?
SM: Well, that’s the fuel for the book really, that’s what makes it go. It’s partly that holidays are such a strange idea. I’ve been thinking about this this summer with people not going on holiday and missing going on holiday. It’s easy for me not to mind very much because I’ve emigrated, which is almost the holiday writ large. But I’ve always found that I go on planning holidays, and I go on taking them, but they’re not always very happy. I miss my friends when I’m on holiday with my family. I miss my family when I’m travelling without them. And it’s very often good to get back. So I sometimes wonder how much of the going is the finding it good to get back? It’s a kind of willed isolation to go on holiday, you cut yourself off from some of the things that sustain you, usually in order to concentrate on others. But it’s a slightly strange ritual.
KW: I’m interested in the way that you described individual isolation as an engine in the book, because it’s also possible to take the engine as being the dynamic between all of the characters, and in particular the dynamic of the majority of the characters with an outsider at the park. I was curious about what it was to write that dynamic. As I ask this, I am reminded that we’ve also spoken about Summerwater being a reimagining of that archetypal story of ‘a stranger comes to town’.
SM: It is a stranger comes to town, except that they’re all strangers and they’re making the town, it’s not as if the town pre-exists the strangers this time. And the question is really one of their ability to make the town or not. Which is also the question of 2020: can we make a town?
KW: Yes, and so there are many different engagements with these noisy outsiders in the holiday park. Some characters are very friendly and try to interact with them, whereas other characters feel threatened and are hostile. Was it important to you to represent a variety of different responses?
SM: I knew that there would be a range of responses. I think that in any situation where the stranger comes to town there’s a range of responses, but particularly if we think about the more local manifestations in relation to Brexit and anxieties about immigration, some people are benign and well-disposed and find it all quite interesting and some people are threatened and hostile. I don’t think anything about people’s demographics tells you which they are going to be. I think it’s something much more personal than that. I imagine it’s probably to do with what you’ve lost or what you haven’t got or what you’re afraid of losing. And that appears in every class agenda.
KW: That leads on to a discussion of the role of anxiety in the book. As we move through each character’s mind we learn about their anxieties and their fears as well as their desires, and there are anxieties that repeat in very different characters and link their experiences. Could you talk about the role of these collective anxieties?
SM: There were some anxieties that were, if not shared, then at least reiterated for everybody. I mean, we all know that the climate emergency is going to finish off humanity really quite soon if we don’t do something about it. And we have different relationships with that knowledge and different ideas of what we might do. But we all know and we all carry that knowledge even though we don’t talk about it very much. And then there were quite individual fears, but some of them, such as the fears of mothers for children, I think are pretty universal. And the older person’s fear, not necessarily of dying but of ageing, is pretty universal. And then there were the quite distinctive ones: Can I find something? Can I remember a word? What do I look like? But I guess I think anxiety is something that we share even though we don’t talk about it much.
KW: Especially in 2020.
SM: Yes. But it’s interesting how anxiety varies. A terrible division I’ve noticed with my friends, and I think one of the reasons I haven’t had more social contact during lockdown, is that some people are more scared of contagion and some people are more scared of isolation. And for a lot of people it changes and you see it in how judgemental people are. Most people think that anybody who’s more worried than they are is neurotic and anybody who’s less worried than they are is irresponsible. But people’s level of worry varies from day to day and week to week and depending on their own experiences and the stage in the pandemic.
It’s not really as if each person has a set of clear rules that they follow. It’s that we make exceptions depending on mood. But we all need to believe that our position is correct.
KW: I’m fascinated by how much we’re talking about the moment right now with the COVID crisis and lockdown, but obviously this moment hadn’t happened when you were writing the book.
SM: At the time the anxieties were about Brexit, but Brexit is a form of lockdown, isn’t it? It’s a fantasy of isolation and independence and sustaining oneself or sustaining ourselves, whoever we might be, and a cutting off of dependence and contact and networks. So I suppose that’s one of the reasons why it’s quite easy to slip from thinking about Brexit to thinking about COVID and lockdown. Because the narratives overwrite each other, but actually encode a lot of the same anxieties about foreignness and invasion. I mean, after all, a virus is an invader, which is a foreign toxin coming into the body. And, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the Brexit narrative sets out a canvas on which we paint COVID. So although the novel was written before COVID it was about some of the same anxieties that we’re now writing about during COVID. I think the narratives of COVID vary quite a lot from one country to another, I have a very close friend in Denmark whom I talk to very often. And there it’s just a health problem, going from what she says; it’s not about foreigners or young against old or any of that stuff, it’s just a health problem that’s being handled by the health service.
KW: I love how in Summerwater you draw out those larger national themes of isolation, fear of invasion, xenophobia and generational rifts on this very small stage in an unexpected way and in an unexpected setting. When you were talking about anxieties I was interested that the first one you mentioned was the climate crisis. As much as Summerwater explores the lives of these characters and the dynamics between them, it also explores the natural world that the holiday park inhabits in these interspersed sections between each chapter. What role do those sections play in the book?
SM: It’s another set of points of view. I was interested in how far you can write non-human narratives. And I don’t think you can very much. I had a colleague who was very into writing the non-human and I always thought that was kind of daft, because one of the things that makes the non-human non-human is that it doesn’t have language: it doesn’t use words and it doesn’t understand life in narrative terms. I couldn’t see how trying to write the non-human could be anything other than anthropomorphic, because words and story and narrative and writing are among the things that distinguish humans from non-humans. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t write about it. If I was thinking about a teeming world and about systems of life that depend on each other in ways that they don’t recognise, I had to include the water cycle, and the respiration of plants and the movement of insects and the development of soil and how deer might think about wolves that aren’t there anymore, the relationship between instinct and history. I wanted just to keep reminding the reader that humans are not the only creatures in this place, and not the only lives happening.
KW: That sense of interconnectedness, and particularly how it manifests in the relationship between the present and the past, is a common theme in your writing. This preoccupation with time and history appears in The Tidal Zone, Cold Earth, Ghost Wall, Signs for Lost Children and it is present again in this book. What is the role of time in Summerwater, and especially the geological time or pre-human time which you refer to?
SM: Well, unlike some of my books it’s exclusively set in the present, so the sense of the past is just kind of pressing through the landscape, which was how I wanted it, I didn’t want there to be another narrative in another time. It’s always interesting when people say you’re interested in history because we’re made by history. It’s a bit like being interested in oxygen or water. It’s what creates us. We were talking earlier about words for gender and race and identity, and the reason they matter is because of history, it’s because they all carry a historical weight and they’re all freighted with what’s happened. So, we can’t really not think about history because that’s what makes the present.
KW: That’s beautifully put. As we have looked back, perhaps we should now look forward. As the book publishes, is there anything in particular that you hope readers might take away from reading Summerwater?
SM: I think that’s up to them. I think you have to publish and let go. I think if there’s anything I want that doesn’t happen, then I didn’t do it properly. And that’s my problem. When a book is published I let go, I think of it as like launching those irresponsible balloons that float up into the sky and go off and kill wildlife. You carry it carefully down to the end of the pier and then you let it go and then you have to go away. You can watch it over the horizon but you have to go and do something else and let it go off and set fire to something
KW: In spite of the upheaval around COVID across publishing and bookshops, this feels like an especially exciting year in books. Are there any writers that you’ve particularly enjoyed reading recently that you would like to recommend?
SM: Always. I’m really looking forward to the new Eley Williams novel, The Liar’s Dictionary. I love her collection of short stories Attrib. I very much enjoyed Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, and I keep quoting a couple of sentences about masculinity to my teenage sons (who are more receptive than they might be). I admired Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviours, which was the first novel I’d ever read set in Hawai’i and the quality of the writing overcame my usual resistance to elements of fantasy. I was delighted to have Kathleen Jamie’s new essay collection, Surfacing, and Anne Enright’s Actress already by my bed when the bookshops closed.
KW: Those are wonderful recommendations. Thank you for them, and thank you for your time.