A Waterstones Exclusive Interview with Sarah Moss
“It comes apart in your hands and you realise you were holding pieces because it was never whole”
With her accutely perceptive, sensitive fiction, Sarah Moss has been quietly building up a reputation as one of the best British novelists writing today. Described by The Independent 'as a new kind of state-of-the-nation novel', her latest book, The Tidal Zone, may be her best yet. We caught up with Moss to discuss tackling the aftermath of near-tragedy and the integral part storytelling plays in how we navigate our lives.
Fiction and tragedy are easy bed-fellows. To be a reader is to be primed for disaster; when the worst moment looms, when the head dips below the waves, when the current pulls, we brace ourselves for the inevitable fallout. What we are less prepared for is for is the near-miss, the glancing blow; we aren’t ready for survival.
It is how we learn to cope with survival which is at the heart of Sarah Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone. In a way, Moss has always been a writer who looks at events slantwise. When we speak, she tells me that this novel is, in many ways, a continuation: "I wasn't interested in the moments of crisis, the moments of drama" she tells me, "I was interested in the aftermath. I suppose The Tidal Zone is really a novel about the aftermath."
The Tidal Zone begins with the collapse and near-death of teenage Miriam, apparently without cause, and follows the aftermath of this moment as her family try to come to terms with their increased awareness of their daughter’s mortality (and consequently their own). The novel takes place almost entirely within the frightening limbo of ‘hospital time’, a space Moss describes in the novel as akin to ‘toddler time’, a closed circle, a moment caught and focused on the immediate present as the family learn to live in a new and precarious reality.
Like all of Moss’s novels, to reduce The Tidal Zone to such a simple outline of plot is entirely to miss the subtlety contained within it. Moss has a unique talent for blending wryly humorous and astute observations of everyday life with an understanding of the deeply layered forms that lie beneath. It’s an instinct the author is aware of; she is drawn, she says, towards broken things and finding the patterns within them: “I always have been. As a child I wanted to be an archaeologist which is also about broken things and seeing patterns in broken things and making a story out of it.”
In The Tidal Zone, Moss charts the pattern, the story, that lies within our own bodies and the way they betray us – a story that is bookended by our own temporality. Time is crucial to this novel – how we understand time, how we come to terms with our own limited lifespan and how we learn to live with an increased awareness of our own mortality. Yet although The Tidal Zone chronicles a moment of acute family crisis, the awareness it raises, for Miriam and for her family, is, Moss says, really no different to the reality we all share:
“Miram’s situation is only a magnified version of how it is for all of us, it’s just we prefer not to know it most of the time. When she thinks that there’s something out there that’s going to kill her, that’s true of all of us.”
Nevertheless, Moss thinks this heightened state of awareness is really one of paralysis, only useful insofar as it drives us to move beyond the moment and learn from it:
“That state when you start bargaining with a deity you don’t believe in, I don’t think that’s true or useful in the end because what you come to is clichés. You find yourself thinking: “every moment is precious and we’re lucky to be alive and I will never complain about anything ever again”. That’s true in that moment but you can’t live your whole life like that. I mean, partly where would politics go if we all just went around being grateful to have beating hearts and pumping lungs? What about racism? What about sexism? What about global inequality? You can’t do that and it’s not useful to do that and it’s not how humans live. So I think we learn from those moments but if you don’t move on from them and move back into a mode where you can contextualise your own extraordinary fear in relation to the world around you then they become diminishing, rather than enriching.”
This sense in this novel of needing to move beyond paralysis towards something productive and creative is, in part, generated by Moss’s balancing of Miriam’s story with chronicling the process of rebuilding Coventry Cathedral. As Miriam’s father, Adam, employed by the Cathedral to write their audio guide, confronts his family’s own crisis alongside narrating a response to tragedy on a far larger scale. This diversion acts as a counterpoint to the novel’s stasis, a physical example of impermanence and the need to move on in the face of devastation; a fusion of ruin and innovation:
“That screen always sends shivers down my spine; it is a portal between the broken thing and the new thing.” Moss says, “ It’s such a magnificent response to it because if you think about what happened to different European cathedrals after the war, there were so many great cities that had ruined holy places at the centre of them, cathedrals that had been there for centuries and centuries and were now broken. You either do a Dresden and put everything back together as though it had never happened, or you can leave your ruins in the middle of your city and go on looking at them and thinking about the trauma but then you have trauma at the heart of your city, or, like Coventry, you can say “here is what we have lost and here is what we are making”.
The cathedral is also, for Moss, another example of spaces where we are taken away from our ordinary lives and where we are offered a greater sense of ourselves as limited and fragile. A useful space, Moss says, but temporary: “A cathedral is a space you go into for a particular purpose, nobody lives in a cathedral and when we go in to almost any cathedral you look up and your body feels different and your thinking changes and I bet your breathing changes. You’re in a holy place but you can’t live in a holy place sooner or later you’re going to need and that’s where real life happens.”
The Tidal Zone marks the third time Moss has been shortlisted for the prestigious Wellcome Prize (the award recognises works of fiction and non-fiction that tackle issues of health and medicine). Moss has developed a reputation for her deft ability to write insightfully about the way medicine interacts with everyday life, both for the professionals who work within its boundaries and those who live alongside it; her last two novels, Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, both delved into the experiences of a woman practicing medicine in the 19th century. The Tidal Zone in many ways feels like a very different animal, particularly in its portrayal of how reliant we have become on our surety that medicine can and will diagnose and cure us.
“I think doctors in any time period are aware of mortality in the way that a lot of the rest of us aren’t.” Moss says, “As part of being shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize I’ve been in London talking to doctors and novelists and thinking that we have lost a confidence within us to face our own mortality and to face the mortality of those we love. I wonder if it’s one of the reasons that mortality memoirs are so popular at the moment because it’s such a rare moment to think properly about dying.”
The Tidal Zone also marks a departure in Moss’s choice to view the medical profession from the point of view of an outsider, with Moss choosing to give Miriam’s father the narrative voice, rather than her mother, who is a GP. It was, Moss says, a very deliberate choice:
“It was a conscious decision to step back from her both as mother and as doctor. I was interested in the father and the daughter looking at the mother rather than the other way around, having written it the other way round in both ‘Ally’ books. I mean, honestly, if I wrote a contemporary GP it would have to be a contemporary GP who didn’t practice very much medicine; I’m not an insider and the amount of research that would be necessary would be greater than anything you’d gain from it.”
Although The Tidal Zone has been reviewed partly as a portrait of the NHS, Moss’s focus is far more on the family than on the intricacies of the hospital itself where nurses and doctors appear mainly as shadowy peripheral figures to the main drama. Nevertheless, there is a background awareness of the institution whirring on behind the scenes, integral to the personal drama being played out in the foreground. Moss is emphatic that it’s impossible to write about health in the UK without writing in some ways about the NHS but as an academic she’s also interested in the place of institutions in our society and how they interact with the family unit:
“I’m interested in both institutions and isolation and I’m not sure if they’re opposite things or highly compatible things actually. I’m interested in the institution as the counter to the family. So much of the mid-century writing about institutions or families – either Freud or Dorothy Burlingham or R.D. Laing – they’re interested in institutions as more successful than families and certainly more successful than damaged or broken families. That really intrigues me. There’s this idea of the institution as a utopian endeavour and I suppose having spent all my life in schools and universities it’s an obvious thing for me to think about.
I’m always aware, partly because my background is 18th and 19th century literature and history, of the way we glorify the nuclear family which in fact is a post-war creation and lasted barely a generation. The pre-WWII nuclear family either had live-in domestic servants or it was a fairly open situation with neighbours and extended family. The idea that the norm is to have a woman stuck in a house with two children is very recent. It’s as if the revolution is expecting two people to do it rather than one.”
Above and beyond these considerations, The Tidal Zone is fundamentally about the importance of storytelling to how we live our lives and live them well. It’s about the stories we tell each other to keep ourselves living and about what we do when those stories fail, when we have to start the story all over again.
“I’m interested in the way we tell stories to keep ourselves safe and what we do when that safety measure fails” Moss says. “In any crisis that’s what you’re dealing with: you thought you were in one story but you were wrong. Sometimes you think you were in one story and you find yourself in another and you don’t like the story you end up in.”
Novels, stories, offer the tantalising lure of defined endings, it’s a necessary and human element of how we narrate our lives and one that Moss understands better than most. ‘Stories have endings’ she writes in The Tidal Zone, ‘it’s why we tell them’. It’s a lure that Moss both understands and continues to test the boundaries of; consistently and determinedly rejecting firm ground in favour of something subtler and less easily contained. This is, Moss reminds me, after all, a novel that takes place within the flux of the tidal zone:
“There are cracks in the narrative all the way through, cracks that let in the light and by the end they come apart. The story splinters and that’s where you get the light from. And that’s what’s happening to the tidal zone, that’s what happening to the novel for the reader, it comes apart in your hands and you realise you were holding pieces because it was never whole.”