Falling Leaves is punctuated with train travel, all those images of lost worlds between stops. It's a kind of road movie of a book, or subverts road movie tropes of drifting landscapes, nostalgia and transition. Could you tell me more about this?
It’s easy to forget when you’re in the quagmire of horrendously overpriced fares, abruptly cancelled services, standing room only, out-of-order toilets and horrible coffee, but there’s something quite magical about a good train journey. Partly I think it’s the fact that you’re not in control, you’re just sitting being taken from one place to another, watching the world flash by. It’s an interesting space to work in narratively, because it serves a structural function – point A to point B – but also gives room for thematic and character beats, giving your characters time with their own thoughts, time for conversation, reminiscence. Something about the poetry of the train journey encourages philosophising.
In this particular story, travelling by train is something Vanessa and Mark often used to do together back when they were both teenagers, so having them take a number of train journeys now when Vanessa is older and Mark is the same age allowed me to explore the gulf between who they were back then and who she is now. It gives Vanessa time to observe him, to consider what’s happened and what might happen. And the flashing past of all these anonymous places, simultaneously connected and disconnected, is a useful analogy for the passing of time and the attendant losses. The past is a lost world, in a way, so having Vanessa share a journey with a literalised figure from the past in this kind of liminal space was an interesting thing to explore.
And it also gave me an excuse to have two characters sit and shoot the shit, which is something I always enjoy doing. Maybe too much…
I suspect your novels proceed through establishing an overarching voice for the work. I imagine this as performative, an out loud voice that draws everything into its trajectory. Do you start with voice? Do you test your work out loud?
Voice is definitely key for me. Even if I have a solid idea of the story, plot progression and so on when I begin, I find it very difficult to proceed without an equally solid idea of who is narrating. That applies more to first-person than to third-person, though it doesn’t not apply to third-person – even an omniscient, depersonalised voice is still a voice, and the tone needs to fit the story. But yes, voice does tend to come first for me; until I have some idea of who the person is and exactly why the story means something to them, I feel a distance from it – not a lack of interest, but it’s just interest, rather than emotional connection. Character is my way in.
I will read out loud sometimes, but it’s something I’m careful with. Dialogue that flows effectively on the page, for example, can suddenly sound very artificial when read out loud – it’s an odd balance, finding a rhythm that seems to flow like a real conversation, but has enough artifice that it works in the context of a story. Totally naturalistic dialogue is a very different challenge, it’s easy to slip into caricature, or have endless pauses. But in terms of the narrator voice, I will sometimes read aloud to work out a rhythmic issue. It can be very useful, and as I have a bit of experience in theatre it comes quite naturally. Unless I’m in a mood where I hate the sound of my own voice, which can happen.
I think your writing is, one might say, obsessed with the stuff of modern life, the thingyness of existence — the music, the film, the TV, comics, this sort of high speed collision of cultural matter — and that you experience this as a writer as a kind of veneer of context. It often seems to foreground and yet immerse your characters. Does this make sense?
It does make sense. It’s most likely a reflection of how I spend my own life immersed in pop culture, to the point that my perception is filtered directly through it! So when I’m writing a contemporary voice in a contemporary setting – which is most of the time, as I’m bad at history so tend not to write historically, and bad at science so tend not to extrapolate the future – it’s another way in to the character. What do they like, what don’t they like, how does it inform their interactions and habits etc. We’re constantly bombarded with cultural detritus nowadays whether we like it or not, as we spend so much of our time plugged into the internet, so I think it makes as much sense to have that as an aspect of the mise-en-scene for a story set in the 2010s as [insert equivalent for 1810s] would for a story set in the 1810s (told you I was bad at history).
It’s something I’m increasingly aware of in my writing, and while it does make sense for this story, it’s actually something I’m trying to move away from, as I think one of the most important ongoing learning exercises for a writer is recognising your own tropes, your own crutches, and at the very least moderating them, if not jettisoning them entirely.
I wonder if part of the parable of Falling Leaves involves the realisation that to become something, to move forward into adulthood, into adult purpose, involves leaving things behind, involves departures, losses and even a kind of abandonment?
That was definitely a preoccupation while writing. One’s 20s are a very transitional time, moving into the adult world proper, but still with one foot in your youth, and you become increasingly aware of things that were once core to your existence becoming less central, perhaps even being discarded. It’s not always necessarily a painful thing – although it can be painful to become aware of it, to have the passage of time thrown into such sharp relief. I think it’s unhealthy to think that you have to entirely leave childhood behind, it’s important to hold on to some aspects, but equally you need to find a way of balancing that with the necessities of adult life. I started the very first draft of the book the year I graduated from university, and wanted to explore that strange transitional period, no longer being in any sort of education institution for the first time in decades, often feeling marooned and disconnected and confused about what the hell to do next, where to go, who to be. Sometimes panicking and feeling as though you want to regress to your youth, and eventually learning that it’s neither possible nor, ultimately, desirable.
Throughout the book, the present and past are in conversation with each other, with events in the present triggering flashbacks for Vanessa. But the nice thing about playing in a fantasy space is that you can present that metaphor literally – as well as remembering the past in the normal way, she is face to face with a literal walking, talking memory. So it’s an interesting and fun sort of heightened way to explore that conflict.
'Llangaroth was just a model made out of the past.' This fictitious town of Llangoroth seems to play with a sense of return. In fact, I think it might be a play on words, a land that wheels, a cycle as it were for the characters to both engage and depart from somewhere, from something. Does your sense of being Welsh mark in this way as a writer, someone of a place but not in it? Is there a sense of dislocation in your work?
In the same way that I’ve found it interesting to explore the conflict between adulthood and youth, I’ve also always been interested in the push-pull between the comfort of home and the need to expand one’s horizons and go somewhere bigger. Having grown up in a rural Welsh town, where I felt simultaneously very at home but also slightly at a remove due to my slightly unorthodox heritage, I did feel, if not a sense of dislocation exactly, a sense of being of two different places, of home and elsewhere. And that became more acute when I went to university in London, being very homesick on the one hand while also excited by the possibilities of being somewhere else. I certainly didn’t have as troubled and antagonistic a relationship with home as Vanessa does – although hers is driven as much by her difficult familial relationships as her attitudes towards Llangoroth itself – in fact, I always enjoyed going home from uni, and I still do now that I live in a city. But back when I was doing it regularly, I was very aware that I could easily get too comfortable there. And even Vanessa, with her quite confrontational attitude to her home town, has days where the place looks so perfect in the summer light that she can maybe imagine herself staying. But then when she returns to London, she feels a great sense of relief. She thinks she’s sure of where she belongs, although maybe the certainty isn’t as strong as she’d like to believe (this holds true for many of her supposed certainties, actually!). That’s an interesting tension to explore.
Falling Leaves by Stefan Mohamed is out now in all good bookstores, priced £9.99.
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