Claire-Louise Bennett on debut collection, Pond
Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut collection, Pond, has already got critics labeling her one to watch. The Skinny chats to the experimental writer about her literary inspirations, and finding her feet in the writing world
Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut story collection, Pond, is not a conventional collection. It reads like an episodic novel; some pieces are no more than a few lines long, while other sections are like prose poems. Each story chronicles the life told by an unnamed woman living on the edge of a coastal town, observing and reflecting on her inner life, on human relations and the natural world.
Winner of the 2013 White Review Short Story Prize, Claire-Louise Bennett's fiction and essays have been published in The Stinging Fly, the Irish Times and The White Review.
The Skinny: When I read Pond, the style reminded me of Renata Adler and Nicholson Baker. Stylistically speaking, whom would you call your predecessors?
Claire-Louise Bennett: Readers will enjoy making their own connections in terms of stylistic affinities. I have a great many predecessors, some that I am aware of and some that I am not aware of. Recently, for example, I read Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker and in places the tone of it reminded me of my own. It's more a matter of sensibility really, which is linked to verbal expression, naturally. There are many writers whose nerve endings are similar to mine.
Do you see Pond as a linked collection or a novel? How did the book take shape over time?
I didn't want it to be anything it shouldn't be. I didn't want it to be anything really. Keeping it away from falling into a shape that already exists was very interesting, and challenging, and I was aided to a great extent by Italo Calvino's writings in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. It's a beautiful work, slim but by no means slight in its import, which assesses how written language behaves from a perspective that links psychology with astrology, the personal with the planetary.
Pond's protagonist is obsessive over the objects around her. It's intense; she pays attention to the minute details of domesticity, almost to the point where her own story threatens to become engulfed. Can you tell us a little about that?
I am interested in how small things connect to big things, the relation between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. As William Blake says, “he who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole, Must see it in its Minute Particulars.” My own method for supporting an ongoing sense of reality would align with that to a significant degree.
Some of my earlier writing consisted of long lists of what was on the bedroom floor, for example. Cheese, a diary, a knife, a tampon, stones, a cup, a Shirley Bassey record, a half bottle of gin. And so on. It amazes me that out of all the things in the world it is those things that have come together in this particular place at this specific time. They assemble and then they depart, like orbiting planets.
There is energy between these things, I've always felt that. Nothing is inanimate because it's always in relation to something else, and where there is relation there is life.
You have discussed your irritations at the 'stage direction' manner in which a character is introduced in a play or a story. What is it that upsets you and how do you try to overcome that in your own writing?
What irks me about that, and about a lot of exchanges in general, is the drive there is to persuade somebody of something. In theatre most palpably, but also in literature, constructing a convincing character and a credible narrative arc seems to override every other imaginative possibility. Paradoxically, I find the desire to be believed and the methods utilised in order to be believable alienating. I don't think it should be what motivates and guides our exchanges, culturally or in our personal lives. I don't see the value in it, artistically or emotionally.
Pond is written in the first person in a stream-of-consciousness style. There have been a lot of comments from critics referring to your work as 'new modernism.' Do you identify with the label?
I'm not at all keen on that phrase 'stream-of-consciousness.' Certainly it has an historical significance, in that it marks a general perspectival shift in art and literature from an external omniscient mode to an internal subjective – a shift exemplified by all great modernist work. Since then, explorations into the subjective realm, philosophically, scientifically and artistically, have been incredibly diverse and sophisticated, so to continue to talk in terms of a 'stream-of-consciousness' is woefully limited and lacking in nuance. The term 'new modernism' is meaningless, but we are always looking for parity it seems, rather than being alert to what is distinct and fertile.
What has been your experience with The Stinging Fly – they're doing so well as a publishing imprint at the moment?
I had work published in The Stinging Fly magazine prior to the book being published. They are very engaged with what's going on in Ireland and I have been very fortunate that they picked up on what I was doing and went with it. I didn't think they would actually – Susan Tomaselli from gorse gave my manuscript to [Stinging Fly publisher] Declan Meade and it went from there.
Something similar happened in the UK – Jacques Testard became aware of my work because of The White Review, and he published Pond through his imprint, Fitzcarraldo.
These magazines and journals and smaller presses have excellent reputations because they are very, very good at what they do – and this is impacting upon the publishing world, which has tended to be unashamedly conservative and led by very dull, unexamined ideas about what people want. It's worth bearing in mind that most of the time we don't dare mention what we want and so art has always been about the stimulation and gratification of deep private wants, not those general feigned wants that are devised and pandered to in the interests of normalcy and sedation.