John Rutter interviews Sarah Dobbs about her new novel Killing Daniel, due out next month!
I met Sarah at Whites, the posh hotel next to the Reebok stadium surrounded by suited businessmen and we talked at length about why we write, about how books tell a version of history or geography, the perceptions the media gives us about our culture and those of other countries. We discussed movies, books, people we know at Lancaster and, mostly, the book itself.
The following are some of the notes and scribbles I made and transcripts of a recorded on a tiny digital recorder that captured Louis Armstrong and Art Garfunkel singing over a cacophony of background noise. I’ve arbitrarily squeezed some of the sentences I could quote accurately under the questions I’d prepared and left out lots of other stuff.
This then is a distorted, edited, paraphrased, summarised and incomplete record of a moment in the same way that an author might interpret a story or a reader might translate it for themselves. Probably the right way to write about Killing Daniel.
Let’s start with some background. How did the idea of the book come about and what was your process for writing it? And why Japan?
“It started with a real fresh and excited need and desire to write. I got onto this programme (Lancaster University PhD.) I was really excited about what I was doing and I was encouraged to experiment. I was repeatedly asked the question, ‘Why Japan?’ At first I answered that it was an interesting place but when I started to think about it, it was much deeper. My Grandfather was Chinese and I had to admit to myself that I wanted to write about him or that culture that I didn’t know anything about… that led to questions about different cultures. What would my life be like if I lived over there? What if I’d looked like my cousins who look very Chinese? Would people respond to me differently? Would my experience of life be different? Can culture change you in any way? I tried to explore the different principles that govern people’s lives. If we live in different cultures are we driven by the same things? Also I think in some ways Fleur and Chinatsu acted as each other. I’m not saying that either is me but it’s an interesting question. If you’d been taken out of England at 12 and lived somewhere else would you have been a different man?”
In the acknowledgements you say “… a novel I have been trying to write most of my life” and that it is about female friendship. What else does it mean to you?
“Maybe I was exploring aspects of myself, or the person I might have been. It is about understanding of self and explorations that might not be answered. The text is a vehicle for asking about what is real and about wishes and possibilities. I’m also interested in why people are violent.
I didn’t know where I would end up. You don’t always get to the ending at the beginning. I didn’t know exactly why I was writing about these two women. I still think about how I could change the ending or how their futures might pan out.”
This is your PhD novel. What was that experience like and how do you think it differs from writing outside that environment?
“For the four years of the PhD I was sort of figuring out why I was writing the story and with the understanding of the story comes an understanding of yourself, that psychological exploration is something which PhDs are great for. It encouraged me to do research and ask questions.
It wouldn’t have been this book without the input from the people at Lancaster, especially Graham Mort; I probably would have stopped three years earlier. It scares me now that I’m out of it. Who’s going to ask those questions now?”
At one point you write, “It can’t be her, that would be too weird,” and without publishing a spoiler I have questions about parts of the story that might only be a fantasy or a dream.
“I was aware that the reader might question the reality of the story but I needed to keep some concrete reality. I hoped to tackle questions about those subliminal spaces in the subconscious. I wanted to build in that instability and a question of who was Chinatsu. I wanted to create possibilities that could be interpreted one way or another. I’m interested in what is real and where does the text start and reality end. We create an indelible black and white thing that can’t be changed but actually the reader’s response actualises the story and then it becomes real; it feels real, but how can it be real? Daniel is a dead character but is the text dead? When is a text real? When are people really dead? Memories of someone who has passed away are real. There is a strange connection between death and the death in a text.
I talked to psychologists and there is something about conscious and subconscious thoughts. We don’t know what goes on in a coma state and again we come back to questions of what is real and what is fantasy. I hope there are lots of questions embedded within the narrative that I don’t necessarily want to answer. At the beginning it’s Fleur imagining what happened to Daniel from the information she has. When you watch a film over do you respond to it differently? Does a text remain static or do we alter it? I was exploring reader response. There are different versions of the story that exist for me even though they aren’t in the printed version.”
The story moves at a cracking pace. How did you sustain that (seems hard to do?)
“I think it’s about writing it really quickly, get a first draft out and be flexible about changes. And cut and have odd cuts. I like gaps, I think the missing links in stories make them go quicker. At one level there was an agent saying “it’s not going quick enough” so there was a conflict with the university perspective where they might love the words and symbolism.
I think I needed to start with Daniel’s death so that it would be noticed and I put myself in the position of an agent. I think it helps if they see you have thought about where a book will go on the shelf (in a bookshop.)”
In terms of general influences who do you read, and was any writer a particular influence for this book?
“It’s useful to play on genres. I think that looking at crime helps us to focus on how we live our lives as Fleur unpicks her history; it’s a forensic analysis of her life, she became a sort of detective. Before writing this I’d never really read crime but what crime says about histories of people and the way the mind works, that really gelled with me because the whole novel is about memory and consciousness. So I did look at the crime novel and the way it’s constructed.
I read a lot of books that have been translated into English including Natsuo Kirino – Out and Murikami After Dark. The setting changes and the culture has different ideas about things like honour and duty but the psychology is the same. Also Joanna Briscow Sleep With Me.”
There is a lot of sex in the book. Did you set out with that intention or is it more a case of the characters developing a life of their own?
“Everybody asks about that! I did want to write a novel with a lot of sex in it because a lot of things hinge around it like violence and death and love and sometimes it’s very important. Also I’ve always had a thing about truth and I’ve never wanted to write a book that didn’t say things as they were. I want to get close to the characters and the way that they think. It is about exploration and identity and two women who’ve been repressed in different ways, one by experience and one by culture, and conditioned to think about themselves and their partners in one way. Hopefully in the novel you get close to the characters and the way that they think and nothing is held back.
I’ve read and thought about the precipice between affection and violence and passion. Yugi cannot get close to people and thinks of his wife in a certain way. The only way I could talk about those things explicitly and powerfully was to be explicit and not hide behind anything. Also Fleur has had a horrible life and there are things that were never said when she was growing up. To write about sex in a romantic or allegorical way is a disservice. It had to be honest and open and lifelike. In a novel it should be there. The relationship between the text and the reader is an intimate one so it has to be truthful; you can’t flounce it up or make it all nice.
I think some people perceive that there is a feminine and a masculine way of writing sex and I was questioned about that which was interesting.
It’s not meant to titillate, a lot of it is quite horrible and with Chinatsu it was a way of challenging the whole stereotype and the cultural ideas about what a woman should be. There are big questions in both societies that Fleur and Chinatsu explore.”
And finally… what can we expect next from Sarah Dobbs?
“I’m writing two thrillers. I’m working on a literary novel but I’m just letting that sit for a year or so and I’m writing about a woman that can’t feel anything so there is a kind of motif in my writing. I want to explore a story about a little girl with no pain receptors. It might be called “Afterwards” because it’s about responses and who takes responsibilities. I’m interested in responsibility for emotion. It will be a psychological exploration.”
Sarah Dobbs has a PhD in Creative Writing, which almost stopped her from writing, but hasn’t quite. Her novel Killing Daniel is out in November with Unthank Books. It will be launched in Norwich at the Unlit Festival. Previous work has been broadcast by the BBC, read at Bolton Octagon and published by SWAMP, Flax and StepAway magazine. Her story, Hachiko, to be published in Unthology 3, has just been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahjanedobbs
John D Rutter is a Preston based writer who is shortly to complete his MA at Lancaster University. He writes short stories of which several have been published in the Lancashire Evening Post. John is a frequent contributor to LWH and has reviewed books by Jenn Ashworth and Zoe Lambert for LWH.