Longlisted for the 2017 Baileys Prize, Gwendoline Riley's fifth novel, First Love, is a needle-sharp portrait of a relationship caught between peace and pain
As Neve, a writer in her mid-30s married to an older man, recalls the decisions that led to her partnership with Edwyn, she tells of other loves and other debts: an anxious mother, a bullying father and an elusive, emotionally unavailable musician who casts a long shadow over her life.
Slim and spare in design, First Love's 100 or so pages carry immense power. It follows four previous novels: Riley's debut, Cold Water, written while she was at Manchester Metropolitan University, plus Sick Notes, the Somerset Maugham Award winning Joshua Spassky, and Opposed Positions.
Ahead of her appearance in Manchester alongside Lara Williams, who will be reflecting on her debut short story collection, Treats, Gwendoline Riley spoke to The Skinny about potent relationships, writers she admires and poetry that makes life worth living.
The Skinny: Hi Gwendoline. Where do we find you today?
Gwendoline Riley: I’m in my study at home. A nice, peaceful place.
Congratulations on the publication of First Love. You once described writing your first book as “easy. The second one was harder, the third was agony, and this one was agony squared.” Which leads us to wonder: how was the fifth?
This one came easily, or painlessly anyway, if slowly. I must have been going through a bad patch when I said that! I shall be keeping my cards closer to my chest in future. No one needs to hear that, do they? The truth is I get very absorbed in my work. There’s nothing I’d rather do. I had a feeling I was making a breakthrough, too. That might not be apparent to anyone else, but it helped me.
You're often quoted as having described your writing process as like “picking at scabs” – going further than is comfortable, and then continuing. I've been reading a lot of Elena Ferrante's interviews recently and this reminds me of her insistence on sincerity in fiction coming only from pushing yourself further than you thought you could go, further than perhaps even possible. Does this ring true for you?
Again, ‘picking at scabs’ sounds melodramatic to the 38 year old me. Can you push yourself further than possible? All this talk of pushing yourself sounds a bit effortful to me – like athletics! A Nike advert.
I revere Ferrante, as all right-thinking women do, and was fascinated and electrified by the ‘dissolving boundaries’ in the Neapolitan quartet. That did seem like something new, yet entirely recognisable. It was thrilling to read that.
Are some subjects unbroachable?
Of course not. But we all have blind spots.
Which other writers, for you, achieve this?
Margaret Drabble has been writing brilliantly about women’s lives for more than 50 years. The Needle’s Eye is one favourite. And Jerusalem the Golden has a very painful mother daughter relationship in it. It’s quite remorseless. Her latest, The Dark Flood Rises, was a wonderful book, squaring up to ageing and death in a bracing fashion. I don’t care about writers pushing themselves, really. You don’t want to read something that feels too voulu or adrenalised. You just hope they’re serious and good!
"The potency of a first flush can be hard to get over..."
In First Love, I was moved by your evocation of that sense of power that past relationships can have on present ones, colouring them and even creating the circumstances for them (I'm thinking of the sway the musician holds over Neve). Is this a preoccupation in your writing?
I think it is. Or it was. I don’t have an equivalent relationship in the book I’m working on now. I don’t know if the old relationships colour the new ones, but they take a while to loosen their grip, don’t they? Think of Jay Gatsby and Daisy: ‘the colossal vitality of his illusion.’ He’s not going to be talked down from that. The potency of a first flush can be hard to get over, and may never really leave your blood. Going back to Ferrante. I suppose the musician in this book is the Nino Sarratore of the piece. One does end up fixated on people – when you’re not really capable of offering love, and they certainly can’t love you back. Neve is pining away for a decade in this book. And her mother is chasing a man around too: having had two crap husbands she’s very keen to secure herself a third. I think we all know people like that, don’t we?
Merseyside and Manchester feature prominently in your work, and you have personal attachments to both. What is your relationship with these places now? If it's not too intrusive a question – what feelings does returning to Manchester stir in you today?
I have no personal attachment to either place now. I haven’t spent any time on Merseyside in 20 years. I have a couple of friends who still live in Manchester but happily for me they’re often in London for work, so I can catch up with them then. What feelings does returning stir? I’m struggling to find anything. I was happy in Manchester for several years, then very unhappy, and I left about ten years ago.
What are you reading at the moment? What is it leading you to think about?
I’m reading Les Murray’s Selected Poems. This was my birthday present from my husband. You really think life is worth living when you read a writer this good. I like him on a hot curry eating dare he gamely takes up: ‘Fair play, it was frightful’. And Burning Want, where he conjures up his lonely, humiliated teenage self: ‘I called people ‘the humans’ not knowing it was rage.’ That line, that poem makes me cry. As does The Head-Spider.
In fact, is this a Manchester memory? I have a feeling he came to read to us when I was doing my degree at Manchester Met. I certainly would have enjoyed that, but my God, I’d give my eye-teeth to see him now!
And finally: You've previously mentioned an appreciation for Joe Stretch's work; who else among your contemporaries should we be reading?
Stretch is a very funny writer, painfully good. Recently I enjoyed Claire Louise Bennett’s Pond. But Alan Warner is the one, really. Everyone should read him.
An Evening with Gwendoline Riley and Lara Williams, Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester, Thu 16 Mar, 6.30pm, £3 here
First Love is out now, published by Granta