An Interview with Gwendoline Riley

Neve, a writer in her mid-thirties, is married to an older man, with whom she has a fractious and occasionally toxic relationship. Over the course of ‘First Love’, she interrogates her past decisions and relationships. Darkly humorous and sometimes searingly painful, the novel questions our competing desires for intimacy and for freedom. This is Gwendoline Riley’s fifth novel.

The novel features some characters with whom the reader eventually shares a remarkable intimacy. What was the inspiration for those characters?

I really don’t start with ‘inspiration’. I start with the voice of a character. First, there was the voice of the person telling the story. I wanted it to be a reckoning: there had to be an opponent, so the husband came in. Then I had the voice of the mother in mind; I wanted that to be an overbearing voice, who gads around and doesn’t stop talking. And then there needed to be a series of relationships. There’s the person who one might say was her ‘first love’. Again, I had the voice of this quintessential first love, which a lot of women have had in their lives, who would be of the “slightly too cool” variety. In this case, he’s an emo rockstar, who is self-justifying and suave. I just wanted a collection of mad people – I can’t say what inspired them! I just had all those voices in my head; I was able to tease them out and set them against each other.

The idea of conflict pervades the book, not in grand terms but in suffocating domestic contexts. You feel as if you’re in the room with these characters.

It’s a short book, so it’s like that Woody Allen joke: “Horrible food but such small portions.” At least, if it is mean and suffocating, then it’s not mean and suffocating for 600 pages. But I wanted a sense of profound exasperation, more than anything else. Each of the relationships is suffocating and terrible, while you’re trying to get through to that person or while they’re trying to get through to the other character.

All you need to do is step out into the sunlight – out of that electrical charge which binds you in that relationship. Only once you step free can you see how ludicrous it is. These people are not going to get through to each other: by the end, they haven’t achieved that yet but I hope that they’re about to. I quite liked creating that atmosphere.

A lot of those confrontations have a dramatic power, in which tension rises and falls. How did you construct dialogue that remained realistic, while still maintaining that dramatic power?

I’ve got an ear for it! I spent a lot of time editing it and I knew when it was right. I’m extremely tuned into the little digs and slights people give each other and how people leave out little breadcrumbs in a conversation, to lead the other person into a trap. Another example is when a person misses the point of what you are saying and instead alights upon some trivial detail and feeds upon it for half an hour, rather than paying any attention to the point you were trying to get across.

I also like to capture the strange dialogue between friends – the odd, often trivial back-and-forth of friendship. That isn’t captured so much in this book, but I hope I’ve got some of that across.

There is a strong sense in the book of a life captured in ‘episodes’, because of the many flashbacks we get from Neve’s life. You’ve said yourself that the book is in part an “interrogation of the past”. Do you think those memories are a useful tool for the character, or a curse?

I think they’re useful. The point of this book is not to show someone who is going to be in this state forever, but who has reached a point in her life where she has to find some resolution. This interrogation of the past is a necessary recollection of the memories, and an attempt to fit them together.

The character has been extremely unfortunate in her parents. With each confrontation, it’s as if lightning has lit the scene. These ghastly attitudes appear: the awful father, who calls her “unclean”; the useless mother, who has no regard for her children. If there’s no meaning to be gleaned from those interactions – and often there is not – then you hope that she can move on.

So many of the novels shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize have a theme of reflecting on the past: sometimes with a nostalgic glint; sometimes with a painful one and sometimes with an unhealthy fascination. Would you describe your novel’s – and its protagonist’s – relationship with the past as bittersweet?

Well, the theme of reflection makes sense: the Gordon Burn prize is in the spirit of Gordon Burn – much of his work is about looking at the past. But would I describe the novel as bittersweet? I don’t know; I wouldn’t want that word on the book jacket, but I struggle to find one. I hope it’s funny and sorrowful.

In comparison to other works that you’ve published, do you see this work as a progression?

It’s a weird thing. I don’t feel as if I’m building a body of work; each book is saying what I want to say, but better. With “First Love”, I finally felt like I got it down, which I haven’t felt before. It feels like I’ve put the full stop on something – as if I’ve reached something I’ve been looking for. So, it’s a progression, but perhaps a clarification too. Above all, I hope that it moves people. That’s one of the main purposes of writing, which gets forgotten occasionally.

Josh Kimblin writes for Varsity and is studying History at Christ’s College Cambridge.

The winner of the Gordon Burn Prize will be announce at Durham Book Festival on Thursday, 12 October 2017.