Writer’s Block With Michelle Sacks

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to MICHELLE SACKS about NORDIC NOIR, the primal self and MATERNAL STRUGGLES

 

Michelle Sacks is an esteemed writer from South Africa whose debut collection of stories, Stone Baby, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2017. She holds an MA in Literature and Film from the University of Cape Town, and was shortlisted twice for the South African PEN Literary Award, as well as the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2014.

Her electrifying first novel, You Were Made For This, is about American couple Merry and Sam Hurley, who start afresh with their baby Conor in the idyllic Swedish countryside. They set up home at a pristine woodland cottage which Sam inherited, where Merry assumes the role of the flawless domestic goddess who bakes, cans, cleans and never complains, despite not feeling one shred of maternal love for her child. However, one can only maintain a facade for so long, and cracks quickly begin to form when Merry’s childhood friend Frank comes to stay.

The book is a masterful comment on society’s obsession with perfection; especially in its unrealistic expectation of women and mothers and how they judge one another. Our digital world has given us new ways to scrutinise people, even though most of us know that a great deal of what we see on social media is fabricated.

You Were Made For This this is a novel that pushes boundaries; primal in its depiction of what humans are capable of when stripped down with nowhere to hide.

Michelle Sacks lives in Switzerland with her partner. She is currently working on her third novel.

You Were Made For This (€14.99) is published by HarperCollins and available nationwide.

On home

I’m currently based outside of Zurich. Like most of Switzerland, it’s very quiet, very clean, and very orderly. The Swiss are incredibly diligent about everything, and also very nice people. Sometimes that’s lovely and sometimes it makes me feel like I’m living inside The Truman Show.

My partner set up his company in Switzerland, which is why we moved. We still end up spending a lot of time away from home, and will likely relocate again in the next year or two.

So home for me is an ever-changing concept. I don’t feel particularly rooted anywhere, and I don’t feel like I quite belong. This can be wonderful, but also fairly exhausting, and I do long for a place that feels more permanent.

I imagine I have the daily routine of an under-performing accountant. I get up, make coffee, read the news, and then I’ll settle down in front of my laptop. I write until lunchtime, and then usually for another few hours after that. Then I’ll go to the gym, or for a long walk, or do some admin. I try to keep office hours, but if I’m in a particularly intense part of the process or in a very good flow, I’ll continue working into the evening and on weekends.

On roots

I grew up in Camps Bay, Cape Town, which back then was a little village with one library, one corner store, one grocery store.

Today it’s been developed into the Riviera, so it’s almost unrecognisable.

It was lovely to live close to the sea – my mum would collect us from school and take us to the beach to play in the rock pools. Or we’d go onto the mountain and feed the wild buck. I spent a lot of time playing outdoors with my older sister. We were always inventing games, or collecting things, or making things. We were always barefoot and muddy. My mum is a teacher, so she believed in lots of creative play – and she always kept cupboards full of craft things for us to use.

There were also weekly trips to the library and plenty of stories. If we’d misbehaved, we had to skip it. Nothing was more devastating.

On Dublin

I lived in Dublin from 2007-2008. I shared an apartment in Windsor Terrace with a Latvian croupier, who I met after posting an ad online. We worked very different hours, but she kept a sort of soft-core modelling portfolio in a flip-file on our mantelpiece, so I could look at her nipples whenever I wanted.

I moved from Cape Town because I was desperate to live abroad and see more of the world, which felt much more accessible from Europe than from the southernmost point in Africa.

I loved being in Dublin. It was a treat to be immersed in so much history and culture. Every week there was a film festival or a concert, a new play, an exhibition. I was very excited about all that.

I spent a lot of time at the IFI watching movies, at the Sunday concerts at the Hugh Lane, or visiting The Long Room to stare at the books.

I worked as a copywriter in an advertising agency, arriving towards the end of the Celtic Tiger and departing around the time when everything crashed. It was both a fascinating and devastating period, but I think at the time I was too consumed with my own sense of loss to process it all. I got fired from my job and found out my father had terminal cancer in the space of a day, so when I left the city, it was with a heavy heart. I think somehow I’ll always associate Dublin with grief and longing.

On creating

I write at my dining table. There are big windows and plenty of light, and I look out on a lot of green, which is all lovely. Less lovely is that the neighbours are currently renovating, but there’s nothing like a pneumatic drill to help with one’s focus.

I feel very content in my writing space: I’m surrounded by all my books, by my art collection – which is mostly the work of my friends, who are all very talented photographers, painters and illustrators. So I look at their work and am reminded of them.

To save my back (and because sitting is the new smoking) I try and stand as much as I can. I have a cabinet in the room which doubles as the perfect standing desk, but one day I hope to have a writing desk all to myself, that doesn’t need to be cleared for dinner.

On bookshops

I have a favourite in all the cities where I spend a fair amount of time.

They’re usually my favourite place to be – I feel an actual physical reaction to being inside. Something between delight and intoxication.

In Cape Town, The Book Lounge is a favourite. In Berlin, I adore Shakespeare and Sons. They have a great selection, and they also serve incredible bagels and coffee.

In Barcelona, I fell in love with La Central, housed in a beautiful Modernista building, with a courtyard that’s perfect for writing.

In London, I’m a fan of Daunt Books, but I get just as excited about any tiny hole-in-the-wall place that I might stumble upon.

And, honestly, I’m even a fan of the bigger stores, like Waterstones or Foyles, or Orell Füssli in Zurich.

I’m just happy to be around books, and to know that book stores still exist in our world.

On her “To Be Read” pile

There are always more books to be read, many more than I can ever hope to get through. I buy books compulsively, and the pile grows.

My current pile consists of some of my favourite writers (the ones who I will read anything and everything they ever write) and new writers I’d like to discover, and also some non-fiction, because I tend to stick too much to fiction.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

There There by Tommy Orange

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Behave by Robert Sapolsky

On escapes

If I am home, a good escape from the writing is always a long walk, or a hike, or a good sweat.

I do travel a lot, but not to one particular place.

I do aspire to that sort of thing – a cabin in the woods (minus the drama of You Were Made For This) or a Philip Pullman-style garden shed, or a country house. That would be wonderful, but until then, I try and make my writing space as unsacred as possible – that way I have no excuses.

On You Were Made For This

My partner and I had rented a small cabin in Sigtuna, in the Swedish countryside. We were immediately struck by the idyllic setting, and the wholesomeness of everyone around us. I hadn’t planned to set a novel there, but we went back a few times over the summer, and each time it got me thinking: wouldn’t it be the perfect place to start over? Or to hide? And wouldn’t it be ideal for people who were looking for the exact opposite of the life they’d had before? That led me to Sam and Merry, who, coming from the USA, find Sweden quite literally, worlds apart. I wanted the story to have a sense of people in exile, of great alienation and isolation – to contrast with the perfection of everything else, and to create a sort of pressure-cooker for all the characters’ discontent.

On Nordic Noir

I think Scandinavia lends itself to all things dark, simply because of the climate, the lack of light in winter, the seeming wildness and vastness of the landscape. Hostile environments always make good settings –life is lived on the edge, and survival is something to be fought for.

I do think that Sweden’s perception as a perfect society also plays a role: of course, nowhere is perfect, and Sweden certainly has its share of issues. Not everyone is living that wholesome, happy life we all aspire to, the one we’re sold with all that hygge, lykke, and lagom.

And maybe there’s some delight, too, in trying to imagine awful things happening in beautiful places – in contrasting the idyll with the worst of human nature.

On perfection

We are obsessed with perfection, and sold the idea that it is indeed, within reach (mostly you just need to buy something you can’t or shouldn’t be able to afford).

Without a doubt, women face an enormous amount of pressure to have it all, be it all, want it all. But I think it’s a mistake to assume that women aren’t themselves part of that dynamic. And yes, society and the patriarchy conditions us to an extent, but more intriguing to me (and something I tried to touch on in the novel) is the way in which women judge themselves, and each other.

And I don’t think it’s simply internalised misogyny at work, I think it’s something else. In many ways, that seems like a conversation we aren’t really meant to have, because it means that women are not only the victim of Man, but often the victim of themselves.

On the primal self

Primal is a great word, and these characters are all driven by very primal emotions.

At the time, I was exploring the idea of trauma, particularly developmental trauma, which plays a crucial role in who we become as adults.

So few of our worst decisions are based on logic. They’re based on a reptilian brain response – flight or fight or freeze, anger, fear – our automatic responses to feeling unsafe, or shamed, or afraid. Most of these reactions are set from childhood or later trauma, so understanding trauma is a way to understand a lot of human behaviour.

It certainly gave me great insight into my characters, and their complex motivations, and it made me more empathetic towards them – despite them doing awful things.

It was hard some days to let go of them, and often I felt emotionally drained. I was very happy to be finished with the novel.

On maternal struggles

Merry’s character really evolved on the page, and through many, many drafts. Initially, I had a different story in mind, but somewhere along the way it just didn’t fit with who she had become.

One of my best moments in writing the novel was actually the discovery that you could “surrender” to your characters and to the story. It felt exhilarating.

I think Merry’s struggles with motherhood was influenced by my own thinking at the time. I found it so difficult to separate my desire to have children (or not) from my conditioning and my biology. There is still an expectation that a woman of a certain age will want children; there are hormones that influence your thinking and there is the biological fact of a body designed for motherhood. Obviously that’s not to say that every woman must have a child, but I was struggling to figure out how one makes that decision rationally, when a lot of the influence is very emotional, and, one might even argue, outside of free will.

At the same time, I started reading about motherhood’s great taboo: mothers who regretted it. What a terrifying thought. That sense of failure, of shame, of entrapment. And what can you do? Women very rarely leave their children, and it is a decision that cannot be reversed. So how are women meant to make this choice? And given the enormity of it all, why aren’t we talking about the topic in more open, honest ways? The great isolation of new motherhood, the bodily trauma of birth and its aftermath, the boredom and desperation?

On what’s next

I’ve just about wrapped up my next novel, which is a kind of father-daughter road trip. The two journey from New York to Texas, and while the story has a dark heart, it’s also very much about the bonds of love and family.

@SophieGrenham

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