Marcus Sedgwick interviewed by Nikki Gamble

 

Marcus Sedgwick is one of our most thoughtful, experimental and cerebral writers. His beautifully wrought prose is deeply affecting and provokes an intellectual response. To read one of his novels is an experience that extends beyond a first reading; these are stories that you want to return to many times, finding new meanings and insights with each visit. His books are profound, but they also express simple truths in which love transcends everything. His latest novel ‘The Ghosts of Heaven’ is a tour de force, and is the most powerful expression of the writer’s vision to date. 

It is hard to talk about a book when you are still distilling a personal response and I was very much aware of not yet having fully processed this beautiful, enigmatic book when I interviewed Marcus earlier this month. And so it was with a thrill of anticipation but also some trepidation that I met up with him to talk about it.

As with an earlier novel,’ Midwinterblood’, ‘The Ghosts of Heaven’ is an experiment with form. It comprises four novellas covering a range of genres and narrative styles, spanning a time frame from that extends from pre-history into the distant future. The stories are unified by theme and the spiral leitmotif, which is the heart of the book.

As he explains, ‘I wanted to see if you could write several short stories but link them up so that it read like a novel. With ‘The Ghosts of Heaven’ I wanted to push it even further than I had done with ‘Midwinterblood’. The connections between the stories are even more tenuous. For instance in the 3rd quarter, Verity is reading a book about the Salem witch trials, which makes a connection with Anna’s story in the second quarter. I was using each of the stories to fill out the others just a little bit more.  But I thought the form would help me tell a bigger universal story because of my feelings about spirals, what they mean and the symbolism in other cultures’.

In a preface to the book Sedgwick suggests that the four stories can be read in any order. ‘There 24 possible combinations in which the stories can be read. If you read them in a different order, what can be read as denouement becomes foreshadowing or vice versa.’

He goes on to explain that he two of the combinations hold greatest meaning for him. One of them is the sequence in the book and, he adds enigmatically, ‘there’s another one’. I don’t press to find out what that other preferred order might be. After all that would militate against the concept that the stories can be read in any order and that the reader will find their own meanings from the juxtaposition of one story against another.

Nevertheless, the invitation to read in any order is one that I took literally starting with the final quarter and working back through history to the beginning. I wonder if he expected his readers to do this.

‘I don’t want to make too much of this point because it can be off putting and frustrating, if you confuse your reader too much.’

He reminds me about a publishing phenomenon of the 1980s ‘The Dictionary of the Khazars’ by Milrod Pavic.  ‘There were two versions, one in a red cover and another in a blue cover. One was the female book and the other was the male. There was just one paragraph difference between the two books. The whole thing was just too frustrating. I wasn’t going to buy both of them or read both of them, and even if I had done I probably would not have spotted the difference.’

It is acutely obvious that spirals hold a compulsive fascination for Marcus. They are the glue that bind this book together. He explains, ‘I started out with the fairly ridiculous idea that I wanted to write a novel about spirals and then I thought about how I could tackle the subject’.

I share this fascination having undertaken mathematical investigations into the occurrence of spirals in nature with primary children. I know that when you first encounter the Fibonacci sequenceit is like discovering a magic formula. And then follows the realisation that this bit of magic doesn’t always produce perfection, which for me makes it even more enigmatic.

At this point Marcus produces a mathematical instrument that looks a little like a pantograph, or cartographer’s dividers. It is in fact a Fibonacci gauge of golden ratio calliper, which he uses to demonstrate how the hardback of ‘The Ghosts of Heaven’ has been designed in perfect ratio. ‘You can derive the golden ration from Fibonacci and I wanted the publisher to produce the book in golden ratio. It’s a small conceit.’  This attention to detail is characteristic of a writer whose prose is crafted and spare, if it were a piece of music, every note would be perfectly pitched in whichever minor key it had been composed.

The design of this hardback edition is indeed gorgeous. Golden spirals swirl around the cover and the sky blue edged pages, the colour of a cold blue fire, described in one of the stories. Each quarter of the story opens with a white line drawing on a black background, showing an unfolding a fern frond, a spiral staircase, bubble chamber images.

 ‘The spiral has fascinated me since I was a teenager and I have spent a long time working out why it fascinates me.  In many cultures it represents something mysterious. I think that part of the fascination is that it is infinite. Every other geometric shape is complete but you can only ever hint at part of a spiral. To me it represents infinity and by extension it represents the unknowable, the mysterious, perhaps the divine, which I use in a non-religious sense of the word.’

I want to press this a little further, I wonder if the spiral should be described as a line, rather than a shape. You could say that all lines, straight, wavy or zigzag, potentially extend into infinity. Although the spiral is different from any other line in that it keeps turning around itself. At one point in his novel he calls it ‘a circling line that never meets its end.’

He picks up the baton, ‘I take your point about the spiral as a line - but I think we view the spiral more as a 'shape', not just a particular form of a line. I see it as a transformed circle - life has circularities but as I say in the book, they're never actually circular, because time, if nothing else, will have moved on, and so what we have instead is a helix, a special form of a spiral.’

In the third quarter of this book Charles Dexter gives voice to this idea ‘You can draw a circle, or a square, or a triangle. A star. You can draw it and be done, but you can only ever show part of a spiral. ‘You can only ever hint at it because truly, it goes on forever.’ (p307)

As we look at pictures of various spirals their beauty and prevalence in nature has to be admired. ‘Sunflower heads are extraordinary. They have two interlocking spirals and if you count the number of seed heads going one way and count the number of seed heads at the point it intersects with the spiral going the other way, we have an example of the Fibonacci ratio 5 and 8, or 8 and 13, or 13 and 21. He shows another stunning example: ‘the nautilus is a perfect, or near perfect, as you say, logarithmic spiral’. And then he shows me some incredible pictures: bubble chamber photographs, images which evoke wonder and aesthetic appreciation and which he describes as ‘extraordinarily ghostly and beautiful’.

Looking at these awe inspiring photographs it quickly becomes apparent that the more you look, the more you discover spirals everywhere in art, science, nature, mathematics, music.  ‘I thought I would photograph every spiral I came across for a year and I had to give up because there were so many. Every Georgian House has columns and gates. It’s an immediately elegant piece of design. Once you start looking for them you see them everywhere. They are unconscious thought. They suggest things bigger than we know.’

It seems that in a search for the meaning of life, the spiral is ever present. The final revelation is that the very thing on which life is predicated, DNA, is a double spiral – double helix. We live in a spiral-armed galaxy.

Having agreed that spirals are legion and have multiple meanings some of which we don’t fully comprehend, we turn attention to the structure of the novel, four quartets, staring with a verse piece set in pre-history. So how did those four individual stories emerge?

The first is the story of a young Neolithic woman who stands out from her people as exceptionally brave and a creative thinker. Where did her story come from?

‘The pre-history came from reading about cave art’, he reveals.  ‘The spiral is a form that can be found in the earliest paintings.  He goes on to explain about the entoptic phenomena that can appear during ‘prisoner’s cinema, which consists of a light show of various colours that appear out of the darkness when a person is prevented access to light for long periods of time. The connection between these shapes and Neolithic cave paintings has been noted by anthropologists.’

And as she stares.
her eyes show her things that are not really there.
Lights flicker and fizz across her mind, as her eyes
try to see where there is nothing to be seen,
here in the space where time does not move.
Bright colours flicker and fizz:
lines,
dots,
crosses,
hatches,
And spirals. (p.93)

 

In ‘The Ghosts of Heaven’, Marcus imagines how these shapes may have become enshrined in art and writing as the patterns in nature are observed and connections made between ideas and mark making.

 

Three things:

the fronds of ferns,

the shell of a snail, and then,

a falcon

she saw the bird on a walk before the waterfall.

Saw it stooping from the sky

Saw how it dropped, not in a line,

But in the shape of a shell,

The form of the fern-tip.

Round and down,

Round and down, far below to the ground.(p.33)

He is also interested that the prevailing theories about the creators of the cave paintings is being challenged by latest research which indicates that rather than being the output of mystics or shamans, many of the paintings were made by teenagers of whom some must have been female. This conclusion has been drawn from the discovery of Neolithic hand paintings, which enable conclusions to be drawn from hand size about the age and gender of some of the creators.

So what does this mean to Marcus and how did these ideas find their way into his novel? ‘I want to suggest a different way of interpreting those images. The prevalent modern media attitude towards teenagers is a negative one. They hit the news for doing drugs in the park and getting pregnant. But there are lots of thoroughly decent teenagers: intelligent and productive. So when I read one newspaper article that talked about this cave art as teenage graffiti, it stuck me that we have a modern anthropologist basically falling back on those old clichés. My suggestion is that we turn it on its head. When these societies were functioning, the average life expectancy was perhaps only 20 years, so it stands to reason that the teenagers were the bulk of the adult population. Yes, teenagers have different biochemistry to adults which pushes them towards experimentation and risk taking but I think evolution keeps traits that it finds beneficial.  I think that back in the Neolithic era it was probably a teenage boy who invented the bow and a teenage girl who invented writing.’

 

The young woman in this story is a hero who enters the darkest of spaces. She carries light with her both physically (fire) and metaphorically (ideas).

She is the one who goes on,

When others remain behind.

The one who walks into darkness,

When others cling to the light.

She is the one who will steal alone into the cave,

With fire in her hand,

And with fire in her head. (p.11)

Her story, Marcus suggests, is the prototype for the oldest narratives. ‘How does a story like Theseus in the Labyrinth or Orpheus in the Underworld survive – a story that is 4,000 years old? It occurred to me that it is part of the evolution process. There’s a natural selection of stories; the good ones survive because they mean something and the weak ones fall by the wayside. So that started me thinking about what the first story ever told was. I reckon it has to be hero goes into cave to confront the unknown. Whether we were living in caves or using them as ritual spaces, every time we went into one of those places there would have been thoughts about whether there was a bear, a wolf a lion lurking inside. That story is a primal experience. We still find going into the dark intimidating.’

The first story is concerned with the emergence of writing, was this a natural progression following the research into cave painting?  ‘Yes, once I started researching cave painting that started me thinking about where when writing originated.  And even, when did language originate? But the answer to that question must be so much further back, lost in time when we were halfway between human and animal.  We can date accepted writing systems, Linear A and Linear B for example, to around 1700 – 1900 BC, but there are earlier proto-writing systems which contain interesting symbol groups, and the spiral is one of the shapes from those systems.’

Did writing a story set in pre-history present any particular challenges, and why is it written in verse form?

Part of it was because I dislike films like One Million Years BC where all the characters have hard sounding names. For all we know early language might have been sibilant, mellifluous and fluid not necessarily hard and guttural. I also thought it would be a problem to write Stone Age dialogue and make it sound authentic.  So I thought if I wrote it in verse, it would have a distancing feel and create a sense of mystery and other worldliness, because this distant past was another world to us. And yet they were still people, so I hope the narrative voice also takes us close to the action.’

                                               

You have written poetry before…

‘A little but not much. I think what I have been doing is sneaking poetry and lyrics into my books but it was a cop out because if it was no good I could say, “well I didn’t write this, my character did.” I think I was wanting to write poetry without having the confidence to say it was mine.’

We move on to talk about the second quarter of the book entitled ‘The Witch in the Water’. Set in the early industrial period and towards the end of the period in which accusations of witchcraft were still legal, the narration switches to an omniscient third person narrative: We are shown the contrast between two characters: the minster, Father Escrove, a man who is suspicious of the natural world, whose mind we learn is full of devilry:

‘Outside, beyond his window, was sinfulness. It was not even a matter of certainty; it just was; evil lay barely hidden in those hedgerows, behind those barns, under the eaves of the farmhouses passing by. All across this green nature, the devil had surely found a comfortable resting place.’ (p99)

The other major character is young, Anna Tunstall, who knows the healing properties of the herbs and wild flowers of the dale and valley, ‘She knew some herbs and she had taken to the art of their preparation naturally. The ditches, riverbanks and woods of the Welden Valley were overflowing with the plants that could make and mend. (p123)

Set in a claustrophobic valley, where petty jealousies thrive and denouncements have devastating effects, Marcus revisits the subject of witchcraft, which was the substance of an earlier novel, ‘Witch Hill’.

‘The witch story is included simply because I am fascinated by witches and I haven’t done anything with them recently,’ he says.

‘I had been working on an Arvon course at Ted Hughes old place, Lumb Bank.  It’s set in a beautiful valley, which is a deserted fulling mill, as I describe in the story. Amongst the vegetation there are flagstones, tall chimneys from the fires that were used to heat the urine which sprawl up the valley crumbling away like towers from Tolkien.’   

When I was walking in the valley, I came across this tree. Folklore is replete with images of trees and stones with holes. It’s all about crossing a space. So it seemed to me this must be a fairy tree, the kind of thing you would pass a body through which happens a lot in folklore. Like passing a body through a window so that the soul, or ghost, wouldn't know how to come back through the door. Once I had seen that tree, the story came about swiftly.’

I read this wonderful book called ‘The Devil in Massachusetts: a modern enquiry into the Salem witch trials’, by Marion L Starkey. It captures the claustrophobia and hostility. The combination of those two things was frightening. As you know, once someone points the finger it escalates out of control. I had initially thought about setting the story in winter in a village that gets cut off. The priest would arrive just as the snows closed in and by the time the snow goes, half the village has been hanged. Then I decided to change it for a shorter scale thing. What I really wanted to get across was that sense of helplessness.’’

We move on to talk about the third quarter, ‘The Easiest Room in Hell’. The title is taken from a Puritan poem by Michael Wigglesworth, ‘The Day of Doom’. This is just one instance in a richly allusive book, where quotation of another text adds layers of meaning. The stories work very well on their own terms but the references to paintings, literature and thinkers invite the reader to go on a quest, to seek out other works of art and to make connections, just as the author has done.

Set in psychiatric hospital in the early twentieth century, this is the story of an idealistic widowed doctor who takes up a post as assistant superintendent at a psychiatric hospital where he befriends one of the patients, a poet suffering from syphilis.

A Gothic story in diary format, it opens with a beautiful white line drawing of a spiral stair case on a plain black background. Marcus explains, ‘Many of the buildings have these exceptionally beautiful spiral staircases, which I use as a metaphor for madness in the story.’

'It forms an enormous spiral staircase, though with interruptions at each landing. On the seventh floor however, on the landing at the midpoint of the corridor between Doctor Phillip’s rooms and our own, the architect’s idea of the spiral is allowed its true form, for here a beautiful free-standing wooden spiral ascends from the floor, thrusting up into a glass domed cupola, from which light floods down. (p.207)

Throughout the book there is a tension created by the various interpretations of the spiral. It is shown as having equally the capacity for ascension into a higher state or descent into hell. But whether you see the spiral as having a downward or upward dynamic is a reflection of a state of mind.

 

 Spiral staircases are a feature in many of the psychiatric hospitals that Marcus has visited. He explains how this fascination started:

‘A couple of summers ago we were in New York and we came across this asylum, Kings Park in Long Island, It’s a deserted psychiatric hospital. It was built in 1939. It’s 13 stories high and at its height had 10,000 patients. This was building 93 of over a hundred on a campus of about 100 acres.  It’s vast like a town. Inside there are signs of homeless people living. There is abandoned medical equipment lying around and even case notes. It’s bizarre. These places weren’t abandoned because of an emergency evacuation, they were closed because we started using pharmaceuticals instead of incarceration but they look as though they have been left in a hurry.’

‘So there are lots of abandoned hospitals all over America and in the UK as well. We started visiting the ones in America. Many of them have spiral staircases. Some have been saved and turned into apartment blocks, some have been knocked down and many are just empty. We visited one in Salem, Oregon, which is where ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was based and filmed. They were in the process of converting it into a museum when we were there. ‘

The photograph we are looking at looks like an apartment block. It’s impressive and disturbing to think how many patients were housed here. We talk about the power of deserted and decaying buildings that can take your imagination back to the past far more readily than a building perfectly restored to it’s former state.

‘There’s something really powerful about dereliction. It immediately implies mortality, fragility of the species. That’s another of themes of the book, how long we are here and where are we going. Interestingly, National Geographic has a feature this month on Pripiyat Amusement Park that was due to open five days after the Chernobyl explosion. It’s now a strange, verdant wasteland with unseen radiation hovering around. There are no derelict spaces in the book, the hospital is completely functioning, but it was the derelict space which drew me into the story.’

So how did you create a story from the apprehension created by the abandoned hospitals?

‘When I was researching I came across this guy called Thomas Kirkbride. His idea was that the hospital building should be part of the cure so his hospitals had big wide corridors, lots of light and were very well organised in terms of facilities, dining, metal workshops, woodworking workshops, gardens and farms. The patients were encouraged to be involved in the daily workings. They had their own cemeteries and crematoria so it was like a small town. Kilbride figured that it was better to keep people feeling as though they were still part of society and given them a sense of direction of doing something useful. That was mid nineteenth century. At the start of the twentieth century there were advances in mental health provision and treatment. Drug therapy combined with a growing population and underfunding meant that the hospitals were overcrowded and fell short of Kirkbride’s ideals. Malarial therapy was introduced in England, initially, for the treatment of general paralysis of the insane’

The fourth quarter ‘The Song of Destiny’ takes a giant leap forward to the distant future. This Science Fiction story is narrated in the third person but focalised through the sole character, Keir Bowman. The Fibonacci sequence is used to number the chapters; 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 etc. A space ship populated with 500 carefully selected humans maintained in suspended animation, longsleepers, is heading for a new planet, New Earth. The journey is monitored by 10 sentinels, who are woken in turn, one every year for a 24 hours period so that they can monitor and maintain the ship. Bowman we learn is sentinel number 6.

'The fourth quarter came because I wanted to spread across time.  You can either tell a story by looking at an individual on a tiny scale and use that to reference the universal, or you can use the universal scale and use it to reflect upon us as individuals.'

 

 

The similarity to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is deliberate and obvious. Many readers will recognise the clues that are left like breadcrumbs through each of the stories. The references to sentinels that bear witness across time (an oak tree, psychiatric hospital, astro-engineers) evoke the Arthur C Clarke story which was the starting point for Kubrick’s film. Then there’s the deliberate naming of the character taking the surname of the main character Dave Bowman and  forename of Keir Dullea, the actor who played the part. These touches are an homage to the earlier stories but also serve to make the point that through the act of reading and writing we connect with other people’s minds. Sedgwick references the lodestars that have guided and inspired his vision. '   

2001 is telling the story of human kind on a massive scale. I wanted to do something similar to ask the questions who we are as a species, where are we going and what does the spiral have to say about that. So then I started reading things about exoplanets. New stars are being discovered all the time which potentially have earth like planets around them.’

 

Here in space Bowman reflects on the macro meanings of the spiral:

‘If it were not important, he thinks, why would it be there? At every level of existence. He is tumbling through space in spiral fashion, and even the galaxy itself, which the Song is crossing one tiny corner of over the next thousand or so years, is a spiral. Spiral rotation of galaxies is what causes stars, planets to form. He knows that. And whatever level of life he thinks about, the spiral is there, from the hurricane eye of Jupiter, to the motion of the earth, to the prints on his fingers, to the DNA inside him, even down to the spiral trails of particles flashing through a bubble chamber.’ (P373)

A futuristic story, packed with science, mathematics and philosophy requires a degree of explanation but at the same time you are telling a story and too much information could overload a reader. How do you decide what to explain and what to leave out?

‘Some stories require more exposition than others but this is Science Fiction and part of the trope of that genre is to give a dollop of science. I’m not pretending it’s the hardest science fiction ever written but I wanted to get some things right, things to do with distances and speeds, for instance. So I had that checked to make sure it was correct.’

He expresses an irritation with the lack of logic in the execution of contemporary space films: ‘Have you seen the film, Moon? It’s a relatively serious science fiction about the extraction of Helium3 on the moon. There’s a space station that is manned by one person, Sam Bell. He does all of his tasks in weightlessness outside the space station and then when he comes back to the moon base he walks around as though he’s in Earth gravity.  So it was really important for my ship to have centrifugal force. In 2001 Kubrick went to enormous efforts to get the details right. He was in contact with NASA, IBM, Honeywell to find out about their latest developments. The result was that he was able to make that film a year before they went to the moon and it still passes muster 40 years later. I wanted my story to have that level of authenticity.’

So you have a protagonist in that quarter who spends most of his time asleep and dreaming as he travels to New Earth…

Yes, dreams have always fascinated me; they are absolutely critical to us. And yet conventional wisdom says you can’t write dream sequences in books.  But I think you can, if you do it in the right way. I wondered what it would be like to be asleep for ten years and where would your dreaming end up?  I had to set that up and then I could have all the weird stuff happening where Keir Bowman starts seeing himself, like in 2001 when Dave Bowman goes through the gate in the Jupiter sequence and is pulled into the vortex. Kubrick gives us a visual version of what happens and I wanted to create a written version. There are things that books can do that film can’t do and vice versa.’

Having written four very different stories, I ask whether he feels more connected to any one of the stories.  ‘Well that’s tricky because I wouldn’t have written any of them unless I had felt connected in one way or another. I know from writing multiple narrative strands that you have to make sure each is as strong or the reader will get bored or frustrated. You can’t satisfy every reader and you might misjudge it but as a writer you have to like them all.’

It’s fairly common question to ask writers of fiction published for teenagers or young adults whether their stories are either suitable for teens or whether they specifically had a teen market in mind when writing. Frequently it is underpinned by a simplistic notion of what constitutes suitable material for young adults, such as whether a book with an adult protagonist can be considered appealing to teens. But I am interested in this question in relation to ‘The Ghosts of Heaven’ which seems to me to touch so closely on the concerns and questions that many teenagers have about their place in the universe.

Yes, since the publication of my adult novel, it’s a question that has come up over and over again. I think I finally come to some thoughts about this with help from Meg Rosoff. She said YA is fundamentally concerned with ‘who am I, who will I be’ and I thought that was very true. And then I thought, in that case adult fiction is ‘who was I and where did it all go wrong?’ And this book, you are right, is more at the level of what is the universe about. The great thing about being a teenager is that it’s part of your life when the scales fall off your eyes and you suddenly became aware of what’s around you. Lots of teenagers get introspective or depressed, or anxious that life is meaningless. At that point lots of people shut that part of themselves off and never go there again because it is scary. So, they grow up, watch X Factor, play the lottery. The other response is to spend the rest of your life with that question mark.’

‘The Ghosts of Heaven’ is a book that refused to leave me alone, demanding that I reread and spend time thinking about it, I can only imagine that writing it must have been all absorbing. What did it feel like to complete it? Did you feel exhausted or was it cathartic?

‘It’s hard to explain but there was, a quiet stillness and a sense of calm because I have been able to say something that I wanted to.’

 

Copyright Nikki Gamble, Just Imagine Story Centre Ltd 2014

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