An interview with English novelist and Auckland Writers & Readers Festival guest Scarlett Thomas.
“A delight, not least for the quality of Scarlett Thomas’s writing,” Philip Pullman described Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe, “Full of life and energy.” In 2011 Thomas was on the Independent on Sunday’s list of the UK’s 20 best young authors. At Unity Books on Tuesday, Thomas seemed to live and breathe her books, reading from upcoming The Seed Collectors. Kimaya McIntosh snares answers about Katherine Mansfield, Ethnobotany, and road signs.
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KIMAYA MCINTOSH: Are there other Scarletts from the creative realms you like?
SCARLETT THOMAS: Do you mean do I like Scarlett Johansson? Yes. I think she’s hot.
KM: A common theme that pops up alongside your name is the devotion followers of your work show. What do you think is the secret to this following?
ST: This is impossible to answer! I don’t know. Perhaps they think I’m Scarlett Johansson.
KM: Tell me about a favourite author from New Zealand?
ST: My favourite New Zealand writer is Katherine Mansfield. Every time I re-read her stories I find something new. I particularly like ‘Bliss’, ‘Marriage a la Mode’, and ‘Je ne parle pas Francais’. I very much enjoyed the novel Electric by Chad Taylor a few years back. I really like Emily Perkins and am just getting into Eleanor Catton’s work, which is fantastic so far.
KM: What is your creative philosophy?
ST: My whole creative philosophy is explained in Monkeys With Typewriters, but in a nutshell: be authentic; be beautiful; be compassionate.
KM: Influences as a writer?
ST: Recent influences are the great writers of free indirect style, particularly Katherine Mansfield. Tolstoy and Chekhov are also big favourites.
KM: Between your novels and your short stories, is there a character you’ve created that you truly dislike?
ST: If I had, it would mean I’d made a huge mistake, and that the work was a failure. I’ve created some very flawed characters for my new novel, but I love each one of them with all my heart. I always ask my students if they love their characters—even the minor ones. Disliking a character is a sign that you have not worked hard enough on your characterisation. Of course I have created types and flat characters over the years—but I’m not proud of them.
KM: When you look at the defining features of your leading characters, they are drawn from you and your life, but which character would you want to be and why?
ST: Maybe Apollo Smintheus. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a mouse god? I wouldn’t say my characters are aspirational exactly, but I’d quite like to be Fleur from my new novel. She’s very beautiful and a bit weird.
KM: Do you have any words of wisdom for any budding creative writers out there?
ST: Remember that fiction is always about suffering, but that suffering can be funny as well as painful. Tell your truth in your own way and you won’t go wrong.
KM: You’re studying towards an MSc in Ethnobotany while working on your ninth novel, The Seed Collectors. Is this more than research for the new novel? What attracts you to Ethnobotany?
ST: I did begin an MSc in Ethnobotany as research for The Seed Collectors. I completed all my essays, but in the end decided not to do the dissertation—I needed the time to work on the novel. I guess in a way the novel will be the dissertation! I learned some really cool stuff, particularly from the botany classes. There was a lot to learn, too, considering that I began from such an embarrassingly low level that I didn’t even know that flowers turned to fruit. Being a student again—while at the same time being a senior member of staff in another department—was a real eye-opener, and I’m sure it has made me a better novelist. Basically, I got to see myself at my worst: competitive, shy, arrogant, unfriendly, fussy. As the teacher you are in control and that can hide a lot of flaws in your personality (as well as exposing a lot of others, probably). Being a student put me back in touch with the really horrible person I am inside. I was the one who didn’t want to get mud on my shoes, or eat the weird leaf we’d just picked. I cheated at the Fishing Game (designed to show how communities will naturally co-operate without legal restrictions), refused to drink from a cup everyone else had used when someone was demonstrating a ritual, and publicly berated an environmentalist for still eating dairy products. But examining one’s ego is what being a novelist is all about. The worst stuff makes the best (and funniest) characters.
KM: What’s exciting about coming to the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, your first trip to New Zealand?
ST: It’s my first time in New Zealand, but I’m absolutely loving it. My partner is from here, so I’ve heard a lot about the place over the years. Obvious attractions are the beautiful fairytale landscape and the wonderful climate (I have not yet strayed from the North Island). I’m also enjoying your road signs. They’re much more philosophical than ours. Ours say things like ‘Keep Your Distance!’ Yours say ‘Think about what’s behind you’ without telling you exactly what to think or what to do about it.