Interview with Martin Llewellyn, author of House of the Missing
Martin Llewellyn is a graduate of King’s College, London, where he obtained his PhD in French Literature, writing on Georges Bataille. He was born in London and has lived in Brussels, Paris, Prague, Montreal and Toronto; he currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. House of the Missing is his first novel.
Why did you decide to write House of the Missing? What was the inspiration behind this novel?
I wanted to write a longer piece of fiction than I had done previously in order to more fully explore themes that I engaged with in earlier writing (desire/love, loss, cruelty, landscape/the natural world & animals) as well as investigate new ones, principally, amnesia/memory, identity and language. These themes, which are broad and universal, tend to feature in fairy tales, and interest in me insofar as a universal mode of storytelling can be reworked and modified, particularly in terms of how acts, categorised as good or evil, can be clearly defined and how traditional moral frameworks conflict with human behaviour. These themes usefully illuminate such questions as what it is to be (perceived as) evil, whether redemption is possible, and where behavioural extremes such as love and cruelty stem from. Also, to consider the relationship between identity, memory and dreams and whether they are different, obscure aspects of one another.
How long did it take you to write the book?
About five years. It was written in a fairly piecemeal way initially but, once the thesis was completed, I was able to fully devote my time to it. The majority of the novel was written alongside the thesis and it provided a kind of release because it was a very different way of writing to the academic mode. The novel deals with some of the problems that I was looking at in my studies.
You hold a PhD in French literature. Could you tell us a little bit about your interest in French literature? Did your passion for French literature influence your decision about fiction writing?
The topic for my thesis was the poetry and poetics of Georges Bataille. He was writing from the 1920s to 1960s and was involved in the literary and artistic scenes in France during that time. He associated with other intellectual figures, among them André Breton. Bataille is often referred to as a ‘dissident Surrealist’, meaning he shared the group’s aesthetic practices but not their ideological outlook; Bataille was considered to be a materialist rather than an idealist. His writings on sexuality, sacrifice/violence and morality/evil and problems in regard to linguistic communication form an enquiry into the innate guilt, desire and will to violence that are, according to Bataille, fundamental to human experience. His writings examine how such a problematic psychological condition manifests itself in behaviour and society, and a consideration of some of these problems are found in the novel. The outlook and writing praxis of Surrealism, in general, influence the writing in House of the Missing, creating a mood of uncertainty and anxiety and, specifically, foregrounding expressions of metamorphosis, dream and reality, memory and forgetting, identity and mis/recognition and desire and repression.
(Photo: Author’s collection)
What was the most challenging aspect of writing the novel? And which parts of the book did you enjoy writing the most?
Deciding how to represent the fact that the protagonist speaks a different language to the other characters. Additionally, it was difficult to gauge how much information to reveal – and at which points – in regard to her memory loss. The characters of Kasper, Sylvester and Teresa as well as the group of figures who appear later on were the most enjoyable to write. The later stages of the novel were the most rewarding – mainly because there is an end in sight – but also because, as a writer, you feel a greater sense of confidence because of what you’ve already accomplished and you feel carried along by a momentum. You, therefore, have a greater confidence in your own ability to control the material.
What was the inspiration behind the little girl, the main character?
She was initially considered as a trope from fairy tales: the figure of the child abandoned in the woods, common in the stories collected by the Grimms, for example. I wanted to work within that framework and stay faithful to it through the use of fantastic elements, but also to subvert it by exploring it realistically, in the magic realist tradition. The question of how much gender influences, or does not influence, her own perception of herself and the perceptions of those whom she encounters, is important in considering how and to what extent gender predetermines identity. The uncertainty produced by her amnesia permeates her perception of everything around her, creating a dissonance between dream and reality, represented in symbolic acts and events. Her lack of an identity and isolation in the forest, means she is responsive to the natural world – the forest and animals around her – in a way most of the other characters are not. As the novel progresses she undergoes a kind of ‘dynamic’ linguistic metamorphosis, in opposition to the ‘static’ physical, metamorphic condition of Sylvester.
Language and the possibility and challenges of communicating between people are at the heart of the book. Was it something you consciously chose to discuss in the book or did the ideas develop with the characters you were writing about?
The limitations of language – and inherent difficulties of communication – are key ideas in Bataille’s philosophy; therefore, they were very much in mind. The theme of language and communication did develop as the writing progressed: first, as a practicality in regard to the protagonist’s situation in speaking a different language to everyone else; and, second, to substantiate the theme of language in regard to identity. Considerations of how much language, and therefore nationality and belonging, configure identity and selfhood are central to the novel. The identity of characters, both in terms of ethnicity and in the territorial sense of belonging to a place, further complicate and obfuscate the possibility of communication and mutual understanding. I try to consider the question of ‘belonging’ in the novel in terms of what creates a sense of belonging to a place – or a group of people – and how this sense, or lack thereof, again, feeds into identity.
Which authors or works of fiction inspire you?
Apart from the Surrealists and fairy tales already mentioned, other works that have found their way to this novel are: the poetry of Ovid, Baudelaire and Rimbaud; Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain; Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the short stories of Angela Carter. More generally: Dostoevsky, Patrick Hamilton, Jean Rhys, JG Ballard, AS Byatt, Michel Houellebecq and AL Kennedy. Music, film, art, conversations, as well as specific editorial input, all fed into the writing process, giving the novel its final tone and shape.
You recently moved to Canada. How do you find living there and has it affected your writing life?
I enjoy being in Canada although there are many things I miss about England and Europe, not least family and friends. I am in Halifax, on the east coast, which has, in some ways, become a model for the city in the book I am currently working on.
What do you do when you are not writing?
Travel, when possible; listen to music and read.
House of the Missing by Martin Llewellyn is available as paperback.