Katie Kitamura on how writing is sometimes a monogamous relationship
You have said that Gone to the Forest is a patchwork of different colonial histories. Was there any particular nation's case that inspired you?
I researched a number of historical examples – in particular Kenya and Zimbabwe, but also India and Argentina. I wanted the setting of the book to recollect multiple histories and contexts, to remain ambiguous and not identifiable. But I didn’t want to sacrifice the power of specificity, if anything I wanted to heighten it – that’s why the few specifics that are in the book are often glaringly incongruous, or deliberately contradictory.
I found myself rooting for only two of the characters – Jose and Celeste – although I had a queasy fascination with the others. Do you think there is too much emphasis on "sympathetic" or "likeable" characters today?
I am generally wary of the demand for ‘likeability’ in fiction, which I think is a bastardisation of the demand of identification – itself something of a suspect notion. There should be characters and situations that we cannot identify with, that retain either too much horror or too much wonder to allow for simple identification. That feels to me like an accurate depiction of what it is like to be in the world, rather than a neutered register of continual empathy.
Both of your novels have delved into concerns about masculinity and the male psyche. Why are you drawn to this?
It’s an act of psychic transvestitism – as a female writer, you dress yourself in men’s clothing before you sit down to write. There’s a kind of surreptitious pleasure in that, and also a kind of ease. The canon is dominated by books written by men, about men, and for men – the male voice is therefore not a particularly difficult one to impersonate.
I felt like there was something almost sci-fi about the novel, with its unnamed landscape, mysterious rebellion, "Oath Takers" and so on. Was that deliberate?
I’m very interested in science fiction – I think some of the best writers working today are in that genre. There’s a long relationship between science fiction and the ‘novel of ideas’, and I think writers of science fiction are able to draw on that tradition to take risks, to constantly raise the level of their ambition.
You've mentioned a few times in interviews that you love Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Müller, and Javier Marías. What is it about these writers?
There's a lot to admire in these writers, and they are each very different. But one of the things I admire in all three is their refusal to woo or flirt with the reader. There’s no sense of them laying out their wares for the prospective reader to consider. There’s no desire to be liked, no impulse to charm (although Jelinek and Marias in particular are very funny writers). That sounds simple enough, but the temptation to want to be liked is very strong when you are writing, because you are necessarily vulnerable. But it can lead to all kinds of bad and somewhat irrevocable things happening in your prose.
You've received a lots of praise for your writing - do you find that a help or a hindrance to continuing to write?
When you sit down to write I think it’s always more or less between you and the page. Writing a novel is a monogamous relationship with somewhat uncertain rewards. No amount of external praise is going to take away from the terrors of that contract.
Gone to the Forest is out on 14 February, published by Clerkenwell Press.