Q & A: Eleanor Wasserberg

Posted on 1st June 2016 by Sally Campbell
Debut novelist Eleanor Wasserberg answers a few questions on Foxlowe, her dark and dissonant new novel that depicts the life of a young girl growing up in a cult.

Foxlowe is a haunting, atmospheric and already much-admired debut novel. Reviewers have praised its author, Eleanor Wasserberg, for combining exceptional writing and compulsive plotting to create ‘an immensely subtle and profoundly affecting debut’ (Paraic O’Donnell, author of The Maker of Swans).

The novel is a sinister read exploring the darker side of group mentality. It tells the story of Green and her little sister Blue who are growing up as members of a utopian commune that calls itself ‘The Family’. Chilling, claustrophobic and yet full of heart, the novel depicts not just a domineering leader but a group of vulnerable misfits; in particular, it portrays a young girl’s yearning for a mother’s love.

Kate Hamer, author of The Girl in the Red Coat, described the book as ‘mesmerising, gripping and beautifully written’ and adds ‘ it completely sweeps you up from beginning to end’; while Clare Mackintosh, author of I Let You Go, commends Wasserberg’s ‘strong and distinctive voice’ regarding it an ‘excellent debut’.

Eleanor Wasserberg is a graduate of The University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA programme who currently lives in Norwich. 

The concept of group psychology and how it allows a leader to completely suffuse its members’ principles with their own beliefs – in this case to the point of allowing unspeakable events to take place – is central to the story. What is it about the topic that ignited your interest?

We’ve all become familiar with the idea of how good people allow evil things to happen, and it’s those characters that are interesting for fiction, because it’s there you’ll find real tension and conflict. The people at Foxlowe at the time of the tragedy are not evil—they take no pleasure in what happens, and I imagine their lives are very much blighted by it afterwards. I was interested in the idea I talk about in the novel, of two names and two selves. When the tragedy of the book happens, it’s the cult persona that is in charge, but the ethics of the old selves are still there. That’s why the Family becomes obsessive about things like the storytelling, and chooses to sleep outside, so as not to hear things. There’s a collective sense of the Family trying to persuade itself. Green talks about “the shoal” and the bravery that’s needed to step over an invisible line and make yourself conspicuous and alone. The thing is that everyone at Foxlowe––even Freya in her own way–– is weak. No one has the strength to isolate themselves, as being alone is what brought them to Foxlowe in the first place. They aren’t willing to give up that feeling of family and belonging.

How did you go about understanding what growing up in a cult would be like? What did your research involve?

I read up on group psychology, especially things like the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment. That really helped me shape the ideas in the novel about what Green calls “the shoal”.  I think it’s important for the story that the Family are not evil; they aren’t child abusers in the sense that they enjoy torturing children. For them, it’s part of a world that makes sense, with an authority that must be followed for reasons that make sense to them. That’s even true for Freya. I read first person accounts of growing up in communes and cults, which helped with some practical details but also the psychology around loss: almost every cult survivor talked about missing at least something of their old way of life, even if they realised it was destructive. I was also influenced by novels like Room, which although it isn’t a cult novel, has that sense of a child’s normal being so strange to the reader, looking at something objectively horrifying in sometimes beautiful ways.

Foxlowe and the standing stones were inspired by Sharpcliffe Rocks and Sharpcliffe Hall, what is it about the landscape that captured your imagination?

The North Staffordshire Moorlands are incredibly rich in pagan sites which litter the landscape without any fanfare; it’s not like the Salisbury Plain, not really famous at all except to local enthusiasts, and as a result there is a fantastically spooky quality to the landscape. It feels timeless. Burial chambers (there is a great one called the Bridestones), barrows and stone circles sit quietly amongst mist and sheep. There’s a wonderful site called Ludchurch that’s sometimes called “The Sun Temple” locally, which was also a blueprint for The Standing Stones in my imagination. No one really calls attention to them, or charges anyone to see them, and that makes them so beautifully undisturbed. There’s a sense that I’ve never had at any ancient site anywhere in the world (and I’m a fully-fledged geek when it comes to looking at old rocks) that you could have just slipped back in time, just you and an empty field and a stone circle, covered in moss. It’s the same with the double sunset. It’s a wonderful phenomenon that goes largely unnoticed, but still silently happens in a kind of natural ritual.  

As the novel is set in Staffordshire, we wondered if any local folk tales or superstitions played a role in your writing of Foxlowe?

When I was researching the novel I went back up to Leek, where I was born, and spoke to Robert Milner, a local historian, who told me so many wonderful stories. Staffordshire and around the area is very rich in local folklore, such as headless ghosts, screams heard near ancient gibbets, and the lights of will’o’wisps leading travelers astray. In the end, though, the folklore that Freya invents about the Bad and the Standing Stones took over, and there are only little remnants of those stories in the novel, such as when Green thinks that Kai might be a moor spirit.

Anyone who abandons the commune to return to the outside world is referred to as a ‘Leaver’. Had you grown up in a place like Foxlowe, how difficult do you think you would’ve found it to become a ‘Leaver’?

Oh, impossible. I’m definitely closer to Green than to Blue in that respect. If you’ve been told the Outside is terrifying, and home is safe, and you are loved there, why would you ever want to leave? I was a worrier as a child and a homebody (though my childhood home couldn’t have been more different from Foxlowe, I hasten to add!) and although I grew out of it, travelled a lot and lived abroad, Green’s feeling of hiding behind the Foxlowe walls makes complete sense to me, and that’s certainly what I’d be like in her situation.

What do you think it is about cults that make them so attractive to people?

All of the Family in Foxlowe are outcasts in some way. Society has been cruel to them or failed them, and I think that’s why people can drift into these cults. We are social creatures and we’re always looking for our ‘tribe’, our family. If you’ve lost yours, or never had one, the lure of a place that seems to offer you love and belonging must be very powerful, and you’d do anything for that new family you’ve found.

The women, particularly the mother figures, in your story are incredibly complex characters whose flaws make them so gratifying to dislike at times. How important do you think it is to have unlikeable female characters in literature? And did you find it difficult to strike that balance in creating characters that are relatable but not necessarily likeable?

I love meeting unlikeable female characters as a reader, whether it’s Becky Sharp or the Governess in The Turn of the Screw. Even Blue, who is the closest thing to a traditional “good” heroine in the novel, is damaged and flawed. I was concerned that readers would find it difficult to spend so much time with Green, who is very much Freya’s creature, but I hope she has enough redemptive qualities (everything she does is because of love, even if it’s twisted in its expression), that people warm to her, because I adore her. Even Freya––although I wouldn’t go to the pub with the woman––I love her vulnerability on the Outside and there’s something sympathetic about her in her moments of desperation. Maybe only I will think so!

To an extent, the book is considered a modern gothic tale; are you a fan of the gothic genre? If so, do you have any recommendations for our readers?

I love the gothic and it’s been a huge influence on my writing. I mentioned The Turn of the Screw above which I was teaching at A-Level as I was finishing up the Foxlowe draft; its narrative slipperiness is such a sleight of hand so that you almost don’t realise what has happened until after you’ve read and discussed it. In terms of modern gothic, I can’t get enough of Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger is perhaps the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read. There’s also Sarah Perry, who writes gorgeously creepy stuff. Steven Millhauser’s stories are  wonderfully gothic at times. I’ll also recommend Shirley Jackson to anyone who’ll listen: the short stories (especially The Lottery) as well as the novels.



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