When I first started writing The Lost Art of Sinking, I’d been researching the literary history of swooning and had become fascinated by the way passing-out occurs at lots of crucial moments in literature: from medieval lovers swooning with passion, to delicate ladies in the novels of the 18th century passing-out at impropriety, to romantic poets being ecstatically transformed by a swoon.
I began writing the novella around the time that Fifty Shades of Grey was published – the heroine of which faints repeatedly – and I was annoyed by the clichéd use of female fainting in these books: I wanted to satirise this and also to explore passing-out as a sign of strength and intensity of feeling, so I decided to focus on a contemporary character who compulsively passes out. The novella developed as a dark comedy about Esther, a young woman who lives with her father and becomes obsessed with experimenting with different methods of fainting, from snorting Daz washing powder at school, to attempted auto-asphyxiation while dating. Her attempts to pass-out escalate as she tries to make her own way in the world and deal with the death of her mother.
The setting was also important to the development of the book. I grew up in West Yorkshire and knew that I wanted the story to be located in the Calder Valley: the steep valley sides and dizzying heights of the moor-tops seemed like the perfect landscape for Esther’s initial experiments in being overwhelmed. I was reminded of Ted Hughes’ descriptions of the ‘wildness’ of the valley post-industrialisation, ‘the way … the whole region just fell to bits, the buildings collapsed, the walls collapsed, the chapels were sold for scrap and demolished, likewise the mills… the primeval reality of the region is taking over again’. While the Calder Valley is now thriving in lots of different ways, there’s still a haunted feeling to some of the blackened, abandoned buildings in the hills, and a residual sense of threat (often in the form of flooding) that the landscape might overwhelm its inhabitants. I wanted to explore that mix of beauty and desolation in the novella.