The Interview: Sarah Moss on Ghost Wall
When considering the impact of history on our present, novelists often tend to focus on key figures, notable events and (relative) near history. In choosing to write a novel that explores the legacy of prehistory were you keen to consider what we inherit from those who live unremarkable and unrecorded lives?
I was, but more than that to think about how we bring prehistory into history, how we make words for people and events that leave no literary trace. We can’t think about prehistory without hijacking it for our own purposes because we can’t represent it without interpretation. Thinking about deep time has the same difficulties as thinking about deep space: our tools for imagining are made of what we already know.
Ghost Wall confronts ideas that seem particularly sharply topical at the moment. I was interested in the way in which Sylvie’s father roots his own fear-laden ideas of nationalism to a sense of himself as a ‘native’; someone whose belonging, he believes, is confirmed by the past. How interested are you in confronting how ideas of nationalism are both shaped and contradicted by our history and people’s misappropriation of it?
Very interested! History always complicates nationalism – the nation state was after all an invention of the last couple of centuries – but prehistory especially so. There weren’t really ever ‘Ancient Britons’, just people who happened to be in this place at that time. National identity is a recent fiction, an invented tradition that depends on myths of origin, and since in fact British history is one wave of immigrants after another for at least two millennia, people who are serious about a myth of origin have to cast back before the Romans. I’m interested in what happens when we follow that logic.
The novel is set in rural Northumberland and the vivid descriptions of place and landscape are part of what makes Ghost Wall such a viscerally affecting read. How important was it to you, when writing this novel, to really root your reader in the physicality of that landscape?
I always like a strong landscape, as reader and writer. Landscape is thematically important to Ghost Wall because it’s a book about edges and surfaces and boundaries. The reader needs to be in Silvie’s skin but also always aware of skin, intent on the surface of the land but unable to ignore what might be buried.
At under 150 pages, Ghost Wall condenses a wealth of experience into a very tight narrative structure. Did you set out with the intention of writing the novel in this way? What did you find to be the benefits and limitations of working within a shorter framework?
I set out knowing Ghost Wall would be shorter than my previous novels, but not with a particular length in mind. I wrote it until it was complete, so it found its own framework. My first drafts tend to be shorter and more intense than later ones, but this novel kept those qualities as I revised it.
There are lots of ways in which this novel interrogates ideas of haunting. At one point Sylvie talks about the point of the re-enactment being ‘that we ourselves became the ghosts’. What does that idea, that a person might become a living ghost, mean to you in the context of this novel?
I had that thought one day when I was in Hexham, near the Abbey which is about the same age as British history, when I came round a corner into a sharp wind and pulled my scarf over my face. I thought that people must have been coming round that corner and shivering for centuries, pulling up their shawls or holding their bonnets, and then it occurred to me that some of them had probably had the same thought I was having, had imagined that a future woman would be adjusting future clothes with her feet in their footsteps. And I liked that idea, that we’ve already been imagined, and found it creepy. Re-enactment is a kind of reverse haunting, an attempt to inhabit some aspect of the reality of the long-dead.
The novel begins with the sacrifice of an Iron Age girl buried in a peat bog. What is it do you think that makes these preserved figures – who seem in some ways a bridge between a living present and an ancient past – so fascinating to us?
Bog bodies are fascinating because they’re still individuals. You can see the whorls on people’s fingers and the way they styled their hair on the last day, but they’re also two thousand years dead and they usually died in ways that seem alien and barbaric (though probably not much different from modern torture).
The novel is overlaid with a palpable sense of tension, in part created by the threat of violence towards Sylvie and Alison from Sylvie’s father. Are you interested in the ways in which violence, domestic abuse and misogyny are woven into the fabric - perhaps quite literally into the earth - of our history?
I am, but also in the constancy of resistance and resilience. Violence is not the only aspect of Silvie’s relationship with her father, and it’s not what defines her. Her narrative voice is strong and she can imagine herself in a tradition of women who are hurt but not, in the end, afraid. It was very important to me to write the violence in ways that leave no space for any kind of voyeurism or titillation, insisting that the reader stays with Silvie and doesn’t step back to watch, and it’s interesting that some readers want more brutality, more performance of pain.
As the community become increasingly drawn into the re-enactment, the line between imagination and real experience becomes increasingly blurred. As a novelist, do you think you’re drawn to these liminal spaces where reality and imagination abut?
Well, humankind cannot bear very much reality… I think I’d see reality and the imaginary as overlapping more than abutting. It’s dangerous to suggest that everything is imaginary because history and science and journalism exist for excellent reasons, we all have access to evidence-based reality, but we’re not very good at recognising or accepting it. Contemporary politics shows us how imagination creates reality at least as often as the other way around, and I suppose Ghost Wall is partly a book about the dangers of believing what you want rather than what the evidence suggests.
The novel engages with the way in which violence can become ritualised. Sylvie at one point says that ‘people don’t bother to hurt what they don’t love. To sacrifice it’. Were you keen to consider how close the relationship is between the desire to protect what is loved and the need to control it?
I was interested in the idea of sacrifice, which seems quite alien. We say ‘sacrifice’ when we mean ‘compromise’: a person will sacrifice his career for his family, but the idea that an individual or a community might take what is most precious and destroy it on purpose seemed unfamiliar until I thought about family dynamics, the way the favourite child is often the most damaged. Even then, it’s not a deliberate sacrifice in the way that the swords and jewels and musical instruments broken and put into bogs in the Iron Age were sacrificed. Silvie is able to imagine her father’s behaviour as a sign of love partly because of her schooling in that very old idea.
On your website you write that, as a reader, you’re drawn to ‘books that are windows more than mirrors’ saying that fiction’s moral purpose, if it has one, is ‘in letting us see our shared world from places other than our own and through eyes other than our own, giving us versions of human experience and history and geography that are not at all ‘relatable.’ Was that part of the motivation to tell this story, to understand what it might mean to see the world from the periphery of what’s known and relatable?
Yes. Ghost Wall is particularly interested in the limits of the ‘relatable’ because prehistoric people sometimes feel very close and sometimes impossibly strange. In the National Museum of Denmark, there’s a Bronze Age burial of a toddler with three apples and a toy, which always makes me feel weepy because I always had apples and little toys about my person when I was out with small children and I think I can imagine exactly why you’d provision your three-year-old like that for the last time. But then there are also dozens of intricately engraved golden ships and objects whose purposes are hard to guess. ‘Periphery’ is a good word for it, a sense of bobbing over the horizon of what we are able to imagine.