Today’s shortlisted author is Alex Lockwood, author of The Chernobyl Privileges
What was the initial inspiration for your novel?
This year was the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. I didn’t know much about it at all, and felt I should. What I researched about the incident has made me think much harder about environmental responsibility and energy practices. And I wanted to share that, and the best way to do that was to tell a story. And of course our Trident nuclear deterrent is in the news now. As a country we’re about to spend an incredible amount of money on renewing the nuclear submarines to carry these weapons; whatever your opinion on the subject, these are issues we should be debating as a society. Creative works can stimulate, even lead that debate. I wanted to write a novel that got closer to some truth, at least, of what nuclear power really means.
Also, my mother passed away last year. For 20 years my sister was her carer, through chronic illness. While my sister stayed at home, I left when I was 18, travelled and studied, and did not take any of those caring responsibilities. Do the differences in how siblings lead their lives, especially with sick parents, always lead to guilt? In the novel Sveta, the younger sister, stays behind to care for her parents and becomes sick with the effects of Chernobyl, while the protagonist Anatolii ‘escapes’; one becomes rootless and cosmopolitan, physically healthy but with difficulties settling, while the other is bound into great intimacy but terrible sickness. Is it always clear who has gained most, and who has lost?
One desert island: one book. Which one?
Impossible! At any other time I would have to say Rumi’s Collected Poems. But now I have to say Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich. It’s a book all humanity should read, for bearing witness to the emotion and suffering of those affected by major environmental disasters, and for the magnificent way in which Alexievich orchestrates the telling of these histories for the humans and nonhumans involved. I cried reading this book, and it is a huge influence on the novel.
Which authors inspired you to start writing?
Can I say Roger Hargreaves, author of the Mr Men books?! I was five when I first knew I wanted to write. My nursery school teacher asked me to sit up front and read to the rest of my class, and I loved the way the story could captivate an audience. Was it Mr Tickle? I don’t know! The first books I wanted to emulate were classics: Jane Eyre and Mill on the Floss in particular, so the Brontës and Eliot. Then I read Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, especially The Crying of Lot 49, American Pastoral, and Herzog. Sci-fi and fantasy also played a huge role in inspiring me to write: Ursula K Le Guin, and David Eddings’s The Belgariad series, writers who allow you to disappear into a different world. The idea that I could create those worlds too was electrifying. My first novel, written on an old typewriter when I was 15, was a bad imitation of The Belgariad, but—surprise!—had similar themes of sibling guilt as The Chernobyl Privileges.
What is your current read?
I generally have multiple books on the go. I’m currently reading Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann. I just finished the sublime The Last Samurai by Helen de Witt, followed by Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai; all three are about the nature and limits of genius. I’m really interested in how writers present the world of genius, and how the novel is particularly well suited to that.
I’m also reading Great Tide Rising, by Kathleen Dean Moore. It’s a new book from an American philosopher and environmental writer tackling the big question of why it’s wrong to wreck our world. I’m seeking inspiration—from writers such as Melanie Challenger, Elizabeth Kolbert, Ellen Meloy, and historically Rachel Carson—for ways to tackle those big questions in responsible, compassionate ways.
And I’ve just finished Ursula Le Guin’s The Wave in the Mind, her collection of essays about the writing life, and her views on various things from foot fetishes to rhythm in The Lord of the Rings. I love writing about writing. I know some steer well clear of craft books lest they foil the intuition of how to write! But I love the insights of fellow writers. Le Guin helps us see how storytelling is an essential tool in making the world a better place.
Do you have any hints or tips for people who want to start writing?
Here are some things that certainly helped my writing along.
I visualise progress, something made famous by Jerry Seinfeld’s row of X’s on his calendar for every day he sat down to write comedy. I have an annual wall-planner and I mark up a W for every day. It’s encouraging and motivating to have a long line of unbroken W’s, or to see how many days over the year I have committed to writing.
Your own space is critical. I used to write in cafés, but getting my own space—a studio within a block of artists’ studios—was a way to respect my desire to be a writer, and also gave me a space to organise my writing. I still only write in the studio 50% of my writing time, but it’s where I read, store books, and use the space to visualise the project I’m working on so that I don’t lose track.
Writing every day is really important to me, although Ann Patchett believes only men have that luxury! It’s the first thing I do each morning, by hand in a Muji B5 notebook with a 0.38mm nib gel pen, and what I believe this habit does is make the ‘tap’ of writing in my head easier to turn on every day. Sometimes the writing isn’t great, but I’m making that sacred space first thing. Then the most important thing in my day is already begun/done.
Read lots! Read omnivorously, and combine your reading (your research for your writing with random reading) to see interesting things emerge. In many ways, I identify myself first as a reader, then as a writer. I try to read two books a week.
Connect process and output. Sometimes it’s more important to work towards a deadline, and at other times it’s more important to concentrate on process. So whether your target is a word count per day, or hours at the desk, will depend on what motivates you. Be aware that can change, too. The key is to really know yourself, and not worry about doing things that may seem obvious or trivial to others. It’s your process. At the moment my target is 25 hours a week spent writing. That’s four hours a day, and I rarely manage that amount, but pushing myself has developed my craft—and resulted in this finished manuscript.
Extract from The Chernobyl Privileges
April 26–May 14, 1986
He is standing at the edge of the fir trees watching smoke rise on the far side of the hill. There must be a great event for so many fire trucks. He’s never seen such a convoy, not even on Victory Day. He wants to go and see the fire. But this line where the forest ends and the fields of buckwheat and potatoes begin is as far as he’s allowed. The fields belong to them; they are part of the kolkhoz. He is of the age where he wants to know why he is not allowed to go into the fields if they own them. His father does not explain but simply repeats the rule, then adds that individuals don’t own anything, not in a collective. His mama says it is because of the machinery. If he could go into the field then he’d be able to climb the hill and see where the smoke is coming from, where the fire trucks are going to. The smoke is not black, but has a bluish tinge. It smells like the stove smells once the fire has gone out. It burns his nose. Great swirling things in the sky fly over their house. Not planes; these have blades on top which lift them up. Vertolit, his mama tells him. He repeats the word as they fly over. Ver-tol-it. They carry great bags that swing to the side as they fly over; they look how his mama looks when she carries shopping home from market, walking in zigzags up the steep… rynok pahorb. There are more than he can count. When they are directly overhead they block out all other sounds, and a wind covers them and the fir trees bend and their house is very small. If only he could figure out a way to cross the field and not get found out. But he has Sveta with him. He’s dragged her to the edge and that was hard work enough, turning and calling every ten paces. She couldn’t climb the hill. She’s too young. She’s not interested in the fire trucks or the smoke. She won’t cross the field. She’s too scared. He wishes she was still unable to walk. She follows him around, and mama makes him take her with him to forage in the forest or get some milk from the barn. He doesn’t like getting milk, because it’s always Strokat, with his leather vest and breath of sour leaves (‘zduril’, he’s heard his father say) who is milking the cows, and always asks him questions to which he doesn’t know the answer.
There is snow at the top of the hill. He is not cold though, and he stamps his shoes just to prove it. The forest floor is littered with nettles. Sveta is tugging his arm.
‘What are they?’
His sister has a small face and blond hair braided in plaits.
‘Vertolit,’ he says, feeling knowledgeable.
‘You don’t understand.’
‘Do we have enough stumps?’ she asks.
He shakes her hand off his sleeve. He imagines taking a sled up there and sliding all the way down into the field.
‘Why don’t we go back?’
‘Don’t you want to see where the smoke is coming from?’ he asks. She shakes her head. ‘Why don’t you want to know?’
She is tugging at his arm. ‘I want to go home. Mama said.’
She’s alarmed by the trucks and the vertolit. He moans and bends down and picks up his bag of mushrooms and the bag of sorrel and orache and nettles and slings them over his shoulder and round his back. He looks once more at the smoke above the hill, spreading into a dark, rippled tongue poking out to the north. He hears another fire engine come past on the road from Radcha, where his grandparents live. Maybe if they go visit tomorrow for church he might see the fire engines. He is torn. He hates church, but it will be worth it this Sunday to see the fire engines. Maybe it’s the church that is burning, he thinks brightly, but then is afraid in case God is listening.
He leads his sister along the path that only he knows. Through the firs and beech and aspen. The path that sometimes has wolf tracks. He never tells his mama. His father knows. It was his father who showed him how to tell the difference between a wolf and a fox. Vovky. Wolves. They know how to use the forest. When he was sent to pick stumps that first time, his father put a hand on his shoulder and gave him the small knife and said, ‘Anatolii Nikolaevich, buty yak vovk.’ Be like the wolf.
He tells Sveta to hurry up if she wants to go home. But they’re not far. The trees thin out and stop at the edge of land where the houses begin. The ground turns from forest to muddy grass, semi-frozen from the snow that fell three days before, although it is thawing. The muddy grass becomes gravel and stone. The houses all have small porches and wooden fences, facing each other across the road. The women don’t leave their houses but shout across the road at each other. They’re happiest gossiping in earshot of the samovar or the baby in the shparhalka.
They are nearly home. Their mama is not standing on the porch but running towards them. Shuffling, swaying side to side like the bags hanging under the vertolit. Her headscarf, the blue one with the pattern of horses, is wrapped around her face covering her mouth. She looks stupid, he thinks. She’s waving and pointing. She pulls the scarf away from her mouth, and begins screaming.
‘Poklasty yikh vnyz! Poklasty yikh vnyz!’
Put them down. Put them down.