INTERVIEW: Naomi Booth

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Sit back and enjoy this insightful interview with the woman that is bringing a new breed of horror to the US. We had the great pleasure of interviewing Naomi Booth about her debut novel ‘Sealed’ as it approaches the US release – we hope you enjoy!

 

  1. ‘Sealed’ is described as a ‘gripping modern fable on motherhood, and a terrifying portrait of ordinary people under threat from their own bodies.’ The novel deals with a particular disease that provides a unique horror element in the narrative that is very eco-based. Global warming has become a prevalent speaking point at the moment, so was this a commentary on our environment at the moment, or was this something you always wanted to address?

 

NB – At the time I was writing Sealed, I was reading a lot of non-fiction about climate change and the environment. The critic Timothy Morton uses the term “dark ecology” to describe the way that we’re looped into the world and are profoundly connected to all other life-forms. He argues that we’ve already entered the next mass extinction event, that we’re past the point of no return, that we are already, in some senses, the walking dead. I found this a really uncanny and affecting idea. I was also read a wonderful book by Eula Bliss called On Immunity, in which she discusses the experience of pregnancy in relation to environmental contamination. She argues that our bodies, even at birth, are already polluted: she cites research that shows all kinds of chemicals and toxic substances, including paint thinners and DDT and triclosan, present in breast milk. These ideas really got under my skin, and I found myself wanting to explore them in first-person form through fiction.

 

  1. Great horror fiction is where the reader can discover their own fears or anxieties and make sense of something happening that may be difficult to process – it’s a genre where we can explore the fears happening in the world around us. What do you fear?

 

NB – I’m frightened of the savagery of illness. I’m frightened of the sharp current of cruelty that I think pervades politics in the UK and the US right now, particularly in terms of how we deal with those in most need. I think good horror often explores what happens when our collective, public responsibilities to care for one another break down, when we’re left in isolation to deal with the most frightening things; so I hope that horror can also remind us of the need for collective structures to support one another and to meet our obligations to care for the most vulnerable.  When I write, I’ve become particularly interested in my responsibility in terms of the kind of endings I produce: I think optimistic narratives can create a false sense of complacency, while pessimistic narratives can sometimes produce a doomed feeling of inertia, giving the sense that the future is already written. I often remind myself to be more hopeful and more open to the possibility of change when I’m writing.

 

  1. Now that Sealed is soon to be freaking out readers in the States what are your hopes for the book on the other side of the pond, and for you as a writer of a very successful book, are there any concerns you have with trying to up your games after your breakout hit?

 

NB – I hope that Sealed will resonate with readers in the US, and might make a contribution to the discussions on climate change and global migration that have become particularly urgent during Trump’s presidency. In terms of upping my game, I don’t think I’m likely to write anything quite as disgusting as Sealed again. But I’ll be trying to have an impact on readers in different ways. My first work of fiction was an experimental novella, The Lost Art of Sinking, about a girl who compulsively passes out: it’s a dark comedy, and a very different work from Sealed. There are preoccupations that recur in my work—weird bodies, strange compulsions, uncanny landscapes—but I want to approach them freshly in each book. I hope readers will come with me as I try out different things.

 

  1. We read recently that you have signed a new deal with Dead Ink Books – what can we be expecting from you with these new slated titles? Will you be returning to horror and terrifying audiences again with your take and originality in this genre?

 

NB – My next novel, Exit Management, is certainly pretty dark: it’s a Brexit murder novel, with elements of reproductive horror and the macabre. I’m also finishing a collection of short fiction, which I’ve been developing for a long time. There’s some horror in there too, but also a strong sense of place, I hope: much of the work is set in West Yorkshire, in its cities and its wilder Pennine landscapes.  

 

  1. What has been your experience with independent publishers and what advice could you give to writers trying to find a home for their own fiction?

 

NB – Independent publishers are the heroes of the literary world as far as I‘m concerned. They’re working with total dedication to bring challenging, interesting work to readers, with minimal budget and lots of personal risk. I’ve loved working with Dead Ink and Penned in the Margins, and my advice to writers would be to try to find an editor or agent whose list you love. I think it’s important to be part of a writing community that you value and that values you, whether that’s part of a publishing list or part of a different kind of a group that shares work.

 

  1. How did you find the judging process for the short-listed stories in Shallow Creek; and what first attracted you to dipping your feet in the waters of this project?

 

NB – I was so intrigued by the premise of Shallow Creek: the virtual world that you created was a brilliant experience for writers. I don’t believe inspiration striking writers out of the blue: I think the discipline of writing to a prompt, and being part of a collaborative process, is helpful for many writers. I really enjoyed reading the shortlisted stories and I was especially impressed by the range of the work produced by competition. The same settings and characters have produced really varied approaches.   

 

  1. What advice would you give to aspiring authors that may wish to enter writing competitions, and what can we as publisher do to help bridge the gap and engaging with writers more?

 

NB – Try to make your writing as precise as possible. It’s hard to stand out in big competitions, and you need to have something fresh and distinctive in your work, but it also needs to be executed as precisely as possible. If your first few lines are weak or unclear, judges won’t read on. Titles are also a bugbear of mine: I read some good stories with terrible titles from aspiring writers. If your title is poor (if it directs the reader too much, or gives too much away) you’re already at a disadvantage.

 

  1. If you could have picked one character in the Shallow Creek roster to write a short story yourself, which one would you have picked?

 

NB – I often start with landscapes when I’m writing, so I think I’d have gone for Silverpine Forest and the Hanging Tree, perhaps through the eyes of an escapee from Arkady Asylum.

 

  1. Do you think that horror has a wider importance as a genre? We’re arguably experiencing a second Golden Age in terms of cinema. What do you think this means about society?

 

NB – I think there’s a lot of very smart horror writing appearing at the moment. I’m particularly drawn to writing that blurs genres and produces heightened experiences to unsettle the reader or viewer. I’m probably most drawn to weird and uncanny fiction, and I think there’s currently an appetite for surprising and bold and unnerving story-telling. David Foster Wallace famously said that good fiction comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable: I think that’s something that good horror can do too. Eula Bliss writes that our fears are dear to us. Perhaps we have a lot of fears that we need to pay attention to at the moment?

 

  1. Short stories are a lot less popular in the UK than in the US, though they seem to be on the rise again…why do you think this is?

 

NB – The US seems to provide more consistent support for short stories, from space in important journals through to publishing more collections. Coverage seems a bit more intermittent in the UK, and the novel is very much our dominant literary form in terms of sales, reviews and literary prizes. But there are so many wonderful writers in this form, and indie presses are doing brilliant work in this respect too. Influx Press published two of my favourite collections of the last few years, Eley Williams’ Attrib. and Claire Fisher’s How the Light Gets In. I always read Salt’s annual Best British Short Stories edited by Nicholas Royle, which reminds me how many great short story writers and innovative publishers there are in UK. And there are new modes of engaging the reader with short fiction too: radio and audio are providing lots of new short stories for different audiences.

 

  1. Do you read more short stories or longer fiction? What do you think the benefits of short fiction are (and negatives too)?

 

NB – I read both, but I find myself reading them at different points in the day: I tend to read or listen to novels last thing at night, and enjoy being lulled by the (sometimes) gentler rhythms of long fiction. I need to read short stories when I’m wide awake and have my wits about me: the abruptness of short stories means that I tend to find them more disquieting. I sometimes wonder if the short story is too jolting for many readers. Sarah Hall describes it brilliantly when she says:

“Short stories are often strong meat. Reading them, even listening to them, can be challenging, by which I do not mean hard work, simply that a certain amount of nerve and maturity is required. Often the experience is exquisitely unsettling; one might feel like a voyeur suddenly looming at the window of an intimate scene. … Mostly there is no explanatory narrative ramp or roof, there are no stabilisers giving support over scary subject matter – sex and death, classically – and there are no solvent, tonic or consoling endings.”

Short stories demand that you pay close attention to every word single word, and that’s both a joy and a challenge as a writer.

Having said all this, I also think that many of these formal differences are broken down by inventive fiction writers. I’ve recently read and loved Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater and Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure: both are novels with fragmentary, broken structures that share things in common with the short story. And I’m a big fan of the halfway house: I love the intensity and experimental potential of the novella.     

 

  1. Which famous writer would you like to see write a Shallow Creek story and why! No wrong answers!

 

Well, you already got Aliya Whitley, a wonderfully eerie writer, and I’m not sure I can think of anyone better. Can I invite a dead writer to commune with us from beyond the grave? I’d love to see Muriel Sparks’s dark and ruthless sense of humour deployed in the creepy world of Shallow Creek.  

 

  1. What are you reading at the moment and what books or writers would you recommend to our readership?

 

I’m currently reading Tentacle by Rita Indiana, which is a supple, genre-defying, futuristic novel. Next on my pile is Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy, which looks like a really eerie, sultry summer read.

 

  1. What’s next for you?

 

I’ve recently been working on a piece of short fiction inspired by weird northern folktales about hairy boggarts. It’ll be available in autumn as part of a new series from Audible. I’m getting more and more interested in audio narratives: it’s fascinating seeing your work being cast and voiced. There are also some very exciting new things coming from Dead Ink Books, so keep your eye on them!

 

Naomi Booth’s Sealed is available through Dead Ink Books in the UK and launches in the US on July 2 with Titan Books

Naomi Booth

Naomi Booth was born and raised in West Yorkshire and is now based in York, where she lectures in Creative Writing and Literature at York St John University.

You can read our review of Sealed here.

Interviewed by Ross Jeffery & Anthony Self

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