4 months ago

Writer’s Block with Alix Nathan


Alix Nathan is the author of three novels, including His Last Fire (2014) and The Flight of Sarah Battle (2015). She previously published three children’s books, and has written about Christina Rossetti, as well as 18th-century writer and notorious beauty Mary Robinson. Her short fiction has been featured in Ambit, The London Magazine, New Welsh Review and read on BBC Radio 4.

Nathan was born in London: she was educated there and at York University where she read English and Music. She has lived in Norwich, Munich, Philadelphia, Birkenhead and now in the Welsh Marches where she and her husband own some ancient woodland.

Nathan’s third novel, The Warlow Experiment, brings us to Herbert Powyss, who lives on a small estate in the Welsh Marches. With no wife or children to provide for, Powyss has enough time and privilege to live the grand life of an 18th-century gentleman, where his lofty pastimes include keeping exotic plants and trees. However, his true heart lies in the realm of science, hence he seeks a project that will impress the Royal Society in London.

Herbert eventually proposes he keep a willing participant in isolation for seven years, inhabiting just three rooms in the cellar of his manor house, surrounded by books, paintings and even a chamber organ. Meals will arrive thrice daily via dumbwaiter. The subject must let his hair and nails grow wild, and keep a diary of all daily thoughts and actions. In exchange, on completion of the seven years, the subject will be awarded 50 pounds a year for the rest of his life.

The Warlow Experiment sparks many questions about humankind and its limits, as well as its potential. The first one that springs to mind is: can one survive without others? How would you fare with merely art, literature and music for company? Most of us wouldn’t last very long, lovely as all of this sounds: the absence of fresh air would prove too much to bear. But for John Warlow, a semi-literate labourer with six mouths to feed, the challenge brings many unforeseen consequences for all involved. A tale of self-delusion and obsession, Nathan’s naturally captivating prose draws us into a prism that is both delectable and terrifying. In unlocking her vault of unique talent, she has crafted a compelling work of literature that you’ll never forget.

Photograph by Jan Klos

Alix Nathan is currently working on her next novel. The Warlow Experiment (€15.99) is published by Serpent’s Tail and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in Shropshire on the English side of a serpentine border with Wales, an area known as the Welsh Marches. The house is odd, converted and cobbled together by several previous owners: the book room once housed tractors, our bedroom was a granary, the pantry held pigs, a spare room the dairy, my study the incubator (I like that it now contains bottles of ink). My husband writes philosophy upstairs, I write fiction downstairs. 

We’re a thousand feet up, surrounded by fields of sheep. The western skyline marks Offa’s Dyke path, the eastern the geologically unique hill Long Mynd. Our closest, dear neighbours are a quarter of a mile away, the nearest town three miles. A town which, years ago, had a reputation for drugs and hippies. Something has lingered. I can tell from the looks I occasionally get from trippers, convinced by my hair and clothes that they’re seeing the real thing.

On roots

I was brought up in a suburb of south-west London, as different as can be from where I live now. Because my father worked in films, photographs were taken at every opportunity so my remembered images may well be constructed from them, and although smells have always been important to me (I have a kind of synesthesia in which I “hear” smell and often say “listen to that”), it’s sounds which strike me most immediately. My mother singing, often popular songs she must have heard during the war, my father playing the piano which he did by ear, classical, popular, pre-war jazz, my father singing nonsense music hall songs which he knew from his own father. At six or seven I was given a wind-up gramophone and an odd assortment of 78s: Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Fats Waller, both of which I love to this day.

On early reading

There’s a strong memory of my father reading Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to me. He’s sitting in an armchair and I’m perched on the arm looking with delight at John Tenniel’s illustrations and feeling an affinity with Alice partly because of the similarity of our names. It was a Pan paperback and ever after I would pack it in my case to read myself each summer holiday. It’s more or less in shreds now.

On family

My father’s family came to London in the 1880s from Lithuania and Russia, while my mother was pure English, her family Hampshire farmers and seamen (my great-grandfather piloted the Titanic out of Southampton). When I was about eight my mother courageously converted to Judaism even though my father had abandoned his religion years before, and my sister and I were brought up as Jewish for a few years. Yet because my mother was a convert I rarely felt “properly” Jewish and because my father’s family was Jewish I never felt “properly” English. 

This mixed background has almost certainly contributed to my desire to inhabit the minds of a wide variety of people. The poverty in which my father’s family lived has made me sympathetic to those at the bottom of the ladder and I do think the not-fully-belonging experience has made me want to write about marginal and lone people. It’s from my mother’s roots that I feel a strong love for both country and sea.

On creating

My study is small, and in facing west is rather dark for much of the day. So I write in the glass house, too shabby for a conservatory, too grand for a greenhouse, with its plants and a large table at which we eat in warm weather, where I spread paper, pencils, folders and under which my books are shoved when someone comes to lunch. The most important thing is that the room is full of light: apart from one stone wall, it’s glass on all sides and above.

Although I’m tempted to dead-head plants, get anxious about the olive tree dropping leaves in winter, watch bird life just outside, particularly the house-martins who nest on all sides of the house, this is definitely the best place to think and create. I can look out at garden or hills and beyond, watch the sky’s infinite changes, storm clouds gathering over Wales, baroque sunsets. So much existence outside focuses my mind.

For a change of scene I walk up the hill or across fields and invariably return with an idea. 

On her favourite bookshop

Burway Books, Church Stretton. Church Stretton is a small town 14 miles from us in the middle of beautiful Shropshire hills. Burway Books has been in continuous existence for more than 40 years, run by Ros Ephraim with help from Hilary Jones, both enthusiastic and much better read than I. It has an excellent range of books despite being a small shop. Ros put on my first “event”, an interview attended by keen, sympathetic local readers of varied ages.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I recently met Patrick Gale and Damian Le Bas at Gladfest in Hawarden where both spoke intriguingly about their work. Their latest books, Take Nothing With You and The Stopping Places are on the pile. Richard Powers’ Overstory is waiting. It’s about trees for which I have a special love. But I’ve been extremely impressed by two of his novels about music: Orfeo and The Time of Our Singing, which I’m half way through. As music is vital to me, I’m particularly interested to see how it can be incorporated into writing, even drive the narrative. I’ve written a few stories in which music figures but I’d like to do much more.

Earlier in the year I met Mary Costello whose The River Capture is a fascinating novel. I went on to read her wonderful, moving short stories in The China Factory and I hope to read her other novel Academy Street.

On escapes

The area where we now live is where we used to come for a day away from our teaching lives in Liverpool and Birkenhead, to walk, or for Easter holidays when our children were still at home. Holidays now are trips to cities to walk the streets, watch people, visit galleries, find a concert. Stimulation not sun! So here is where I find peace.

Those who come to stay always comment on the quiet and peace of the place.

I’d be delighted to reconnect with Ireland, having last visited 25 years ago. Where once as a student I behaved outrageously in Gort, a year later cycled slowly alone round empty roads from a B&B in Bantry, full of soda bread and Padraig Pearse!

On The Warlow Experiment

The seeds were planted years ago when quite accidentally I came across the advertisement for someone to live underground for seven years. At first I talked about it obsessively, Ancient Mariner-like. Then I tried to understand the two main characters by writing a short story for each. But soon these seemed incomplete and I decided that other characters immediately affected by the situation could contribute to a kind of microcosm of society in the house.

Getting right into the heads of Powyss and Warlow was the most challenging and thus rewarding aspect of the writing. In fact I became fondest of Warlow who is actually a rather horrible man. I imagine the reader will feel some of the things I felt about him: repulsion, amusement, pity.

The sexual relationship between Powyss and Hannah Warlow and the moments of physical violence were definitely the hardest things to write.

On solitary confinement

I couldn’t do it! The lack of natural light would make me lose my mind in a very short time, much more quickly than Warlow did – three days, perhaps.

On what’s next

I’m working on another novel, a sequel to The Flight of Sarah Battle, set in the early years of the 19th century, the Napoleonic wars still raging. Sarah Battle was a book with an ambiguous ending. Too many people asked me what happened next for me not to want to follow it through. It’s a very different book from The Warlow Experiment focussing on the loss and longing of mother and daughter. It’s due for delivery to Serpent’s Tail next spring.

I’d like to write contemporary short stories again, ideally bring out a collection. I want to resist the temptation to remain in the 18th century, however much more I feel I know about it than I do about the puzzling present!


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