‘Psychology of the Self and the Author’ Panellist
Interview conducted by Laura Reilly
Julia Armfield is a fiction writer with a Master’s in Victorian Art and Literature from Royal Holloway University. She lives and works in London with her girlfriend who is fine and their cat who is garbage.
Her work has been published in Granta, Lighthouse, Analog Magazine, Neon Magazine and Best British Short Stories 2019 and 2021. She was longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Prize 2018 and was the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award. Her debut collection, salt slow, was published by Picador in May 2019, and by Flatiron in the US. salt slow was longlisted for the Polari Prize 2020 and the Edge Hill Prize 2020 and was shortlisted for the London Magazine Prize for Debut Fiction 2020. Her story ‘Longshore Drift’ won a Pushcart Prize in 2020.
Our interviewer Laura caught up with Julia to talk about her debut novel ahead of her appearance on our ‘Psychology of the Self and the Author’ panel, following her discussion of her debut collection salt slow during last year’s Festival.
Q: Your new novel Our Wives Under the Sea has been named as the book to look out for in 2022 by The Guardian, i-D, Autostraddle, Bustle, Good Housekeeping, Stylist and DAZED. Tell us a little bit about it.
Our Wives, at its core, is both a horror novel and a novel about grief. It is a queer novel about two women who are married, one of whom goes to the bottom of the sea in what appears to be a routine research dive, but then gets trapped there for many months and comes back quite different. The novel explores the process of dealing with a loved one who is leaving in stages. There is a dual narrative which explores both of the women’s perspectives and when I was writing, balancing the voices was key.
The novel simultaneously deals with horror and romance, which, I think as genres and tropes are kind of the same thing; they spring from the same core, which is the fear of death to some degree. I think it’s about the fear of the inevitable and the fear of losing the things you love. For this reason, I think it’s impossible to have one without the other.
Q: It seems that horror, specifically related to body horror, is a genre that you’re interested in. What is it specifically that sparks your interest?
Body horror has always been a fascination of mine because so much of my visual language stems from horror cinema and I think there’s nothing more visceral to me than the sense of oneself as a body. The world engages with your body first before it engages with you as a person. When I was writing about grief, I got very hung up on this. I was thinking of how the concept of oneself as a body alternately dooms you in some way because eventually, you’re going to age, you’re going to die, and your body will break down. I’m interested in how the body renders one ultimately finite.
Q: How do you avoid cliché when graphically describing body horror?
It’s perhaps impossible to completely avoid cliché but I’ve often found that cutting away at a key moment helps me because I am more interested ultimately in the horror of before rather than showing the thing itself, which I think allows me to avoid clichéd, well-trodden descriptions. I also think that the thing that is actually horrifying is not the thing, but the dread; the horror itself is often a relief because what you’ve been dreading has happened. Therefore, focusing on the ‘lead up’ helps me avoid clichés and maintain a certain tone.
Q: How important to your writing process is researching? How long do you typically spend researching before writing?
It is important, but I don’t have a strictly realist world most of the time. I always consider my writing to be realism-adjacent. I like to research as much as it benefits me and nothing more. Peter Cushing once said if you’ve got thousands of people seeing a movie, but one person is a doctor and a brain transplant is filmed the wrong way, they’ll be distracted. I take that point up to a certain level, but as long as I can make things sound convincing, I don’t think it necessarily matters if the way I describe a submarine going down is only partially accurate. Writing is an excuse to indulge your weird preoccupations, and I’m preoccupied with strange things at the bottom of the sea! It was wonderful to write about disgusting, faceless cusks and vampire squids and call it work.
Q: It’s interesting to be working with themes that allow for much creativity with language and form. Do you find that you can really go to town with your language choice?
My writing tends to be inspired more by films than books because my writing draws from visual language, and there is nothing more overtly visual than the horror medium in film. I always have this in my head—it’s always about invoking a scene, a shock, something very large and very visual, so I think that definitely does affect my language.
Q: You mentioned in another interview that you remember being ‘disgusted and thrilled’ at the scene in Roald Dahl’s The Witches when the boy is turned into a mouse. What kind of literature did you read as a child and how has it inspired your current work?
Of course, I read lots as a child; the classics, and I was pinging back and forth between literature for different ages. However, my main influences stem from watching specific moments from specific movies at the wrong time. For example, I would be at somebody’s house and a shark biting someone in half in Jaws would happen to be on TV… it was lots of accidentally seeing bits from movies like that and being repulsed but fascinated. I think the thing about being a horror fan boils down to a specific thrill of knowing you shouldn’t look but wanting to look anyway and when you’re shown only little bits as a kid, that desire intensifies. Jaws is a particular favourite, but also Suspiria, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream, Halloween—most of which I watched too young!
Q: So, film is a huge inspiration. Which films have been most influential to you?
I’m fascinated by the way that young directors often start with horror films because it can give them the freedom to explore the things that preoccupy them. Every so often, I’ll see a movie and wish that I had written it, and two movies that I feel this way about are Saint Maud and The Novice. The best movie ever made, though, is the movie Aliens, directed by James Cameron!
Q: Fiction is not all you write, you’re also an occasional playwright! Do you have a preference? How does the process of writing fiction differ, if at all, from writing plays?
I wrote plays when I felt exhausted with long-form fiction and it was a stop-gap before I started writing short stories, which is how I made everything work for me. It was a vital part of my writing experience because it forced me to look at voice in a way that I hadn’t before. Before that, I had been creating and abandoning scenarios because I got bored of them and it never occurred to me to care about the characters. Then, I got through this phase and wrote short stories. I find them so freeing because you can leave so much unsaid. There’s more pressure when writing novels to make your characters, if not likeable, bearable, more so than when writing short stories.
Q: In a previous interview, you noted that creating characters for a novel is different from a short story because you become more attached to them. How do you create your characters—do you base them on people you know?
I think that there are characters at certain points in your life that you just need to write! It’s reductive to argue that female writers are always writing, to some degree, autobiographically—I don’t think that’s true. I also think it’s an idea attributed more to women than men. That said, characters for me can be a vessel to figure out what I think about things and to express these thoughts. Characters become versions of things that I think/worry about. I write to understand how I think about things, so, in that sense, characters become quite precious to me.
Q: The theme of the Surrey New Writers Festival this year is ‘deconstructing the self’. How much would you say that the theme of ‘the self’ is present in your work?
I think the self is quite key in Our Wives, which explores the anticipation of grief and losing someone before losing their physical self. There is a lot in the novel which is about Leah coming more and more apart, while Miri is coming to terms with the fact that grief is selfish. Essentially, you’re not just grieving the loss of the person but also the loss of yourself without that person and how you can be without them before they are physically gone. I was keen to explore the idea that much of what defines a person is what they mean to you, and thus, grief and loss are always entirely personal.
To learn more about Julia’s role in the 2022 Festival, and to buy Our Wives Under The Sea, head to her section of SNWF’s Meet Our Guests.
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About the Author:
AboLaura Reilly is currently in her final year of her English Literature with Creative Writing degree at the University of Surrey. Laura is particularly interested in reading and writing poetry and aspires to one day publish some of her work. This is her first year with the festival as she assists with conducting author interviews. In her spare time, Laura is likely to be found in watching a musical in the West End or singing along to Taylor Swift!