Photo: Nadav Kander. Hair and makeup by Rachel Singer Clark.
On a very hot afternoon in London, writer Gwendoline Riley and I visited the Tate Modern. As we entered the expansive lobby, which usually contains large art installations but contained nothing that day, Riley gestured around. “What’s this one called?” ” she asked. I explained in the luminous voice of a teacher that the room is called the Turbine Hall. She looked at me, bewildered. “Yes, I know it’s Turbine Hall,” she said. “I was making a joke because it’s empty.”
I laughed and cracked up. Of course, she knew it was Turbine Hall; of course it was a joke. This kind of social misfire with two parts communicating totally, almost heroically, against the grain is an important feature of Riley’s work. She writes very intelligent and very devastating novels that capture the excruciating separation that can define our most intimate relationships. They’re full of awkward, superficial dinners with family members, pointless repeated arguments with lovers, and catch-ups with old, long-passed friends. Improbably, they are also funny to laugh about.
The writer, who grew up in the North West of England, has published her first novel, Cold water, 20 years ago, when she was 22. Since then, she has published five more, often critically acclaimed but with mixed commercial success; it’s only with his last two, First love and my ghosts – now about to be published in the United States by New York Review Books – that it has begun to reach a wider readership. In both of these cases, subtly distressed female narrators who share certain biographical similarities with Riley recount their personal stories of disturbing interactions. In First love, a writer in a troubled but romantic relationship with an older man questions how her life has evolved and stabilized since her breakup over a previous affair. In My Ghosts, A mother’s death prompts her daughter to reflect on her mother’s life and their strained relationship.
This may make Riley’s work sound like a play with other recent novels that use clearly autobiographical material and eschew plot – novels in which the intricacies of using a web browser can span pages. But his books stand out. Riley has a spy’s attention to detail and a great and terrible power to recreate mannerisms, pretensions and the painfully recognizable human tendency to wallow in delusion. Its first-person narrators are conceived as blind and oblivious. She makes the other characters strangely realistic through their speaking habits alone. The mother in My Ghosts, Hen Grant, keeps a diary full of visits to empty galleries and film festivals that don’t interest her, all to maintain her false impression of being busy and lively. In one scene, Hen invites a man she met on vacation to her daughter’s apartment for dinner:
“And you want a drink?” my mom said as Dave handed her his coat and smiled at us. ” Or one… radishWhere … You want it, we got it“, she said, in her voice of an Italian restaurateur. “We need radishes, we need walnuts!” she says.
Riley’s friend, Houman Barekat, a critic, described her writing as “filmic”, with an emphasis on direction. “She has this amazing ear for a bit of telling detail,” he said. “She’ll tell you an anecdote about an interesting social interaction and she’ll just pick out a particular type of phrasing that a person had used, that had stuck in their mind, and you find yourself thinking, Alright, I see that’s the person who wrote those books.”
“I love writing dialogue. It’s something I could write a lot,” Riley told me. “I really have to cut it down. It’s difficult because you want to show a conversation that’s repetitive and frustrating and going in circles, but I’m not here to alienate the reader by putting them through a lot.
When I told her I found the books hilarious, she said, “Okay, I have this terrible thing when someone says that: I frown and say, ‘They’re not supposed to be funny. And if someone says, ‘Oh my God, that was so hurtful,’ I’m like, ‘That was supposed to be funny.’ “I asked how come every person I know who has read First love and my ghosts claims to see his own parents in the characters. Shrugging, she said, “It’s the whole argument of being specific to be universal, I guess.”
Riley was born in London in 1979, grew up on the Wirral peninsula near Liverpool and moved to Manchester to study English literature when she was 18. She always knew she would be a writer. “I was fascinated by the idea of being able to conjure things up,” she said. Four years later, she published Cold water, which traces the ill-fated romances of Carmel McKisco, a 20-year-old bartender in Manchester who is estranged from her family and spends her time reading and dreaming of escape. Cold water earned Riley a Betty Trask Award – a major award for early novelists – and good reviews. “She was kind of a rock star back then in a very small way,” said Luke Brown, a novelist and publisher who befriended Riley when they were both in their twenties. “She looked glamorous. She was so young and she had those cheekbones. But her early success didn’t lead to literary stardom. She occasionally worked at a bar, Manchester’s Night & Day Café, until the age of 30. She published two more novels in her twenties, Sick Notes and Joshua Spassky, then another, Opposite positions, in their early thirties. She was once dropped by her publisher for poor sales, an experience she describes as “very scary”.
Although she was celebrated by the literary world early in her career, she felt separated from it. “It’s strange to know people who have been diligently writing their book reviews all this time, when I was in a very different underworld for a long time,” she said. She now lives in west London with her husband, the poet and former deputy editor of Times Literary Supplement Alan Jenkins. They first met at a literary event when she was 24 and he was 48, but they didn’t start dating until years later. She’s almost feminine about their relationship: “He’s the best thing that ever happened to me, if I may be sentimental.”
Because Riley’s protagonists tend to roughly share her biography, readers can assume the books are about her. “Obviously, these are not historical novels. But it’s strange to me when someone who’s never met me and doesn’t know me utters that with confidence,” she said. “I’m not going to complain about that. But people don’t know anything about my life. She laughed and added, “Until now.”
As we strolled through the galleries of the Tate, she made a joke while being watched by me, making an exaggerated response to the first room of paintings: “Well, that’s all great. Who are these people? I like it!” When we walked into a less crowded room, she remarked that the art must be awful. She positioned herself as reserved about her personal life – “You should be torturing me, to be honest” – but was affable and pointed, constantly making casual references to cultural artifacts that I began to mentally notice later: the work of director Terence Davies; a scene from lolita; a book by Józef Czapski; the film 5×2, by Francois Ozon. We headed to the rooftop cafe, where I asked if she wanted a coffee. She suggested wine instead. “I like a drink as much as the next novelist of my generation,” she said, “and previous generations, I think.” We sat in the blazing sun with two tall glasses of rosé.
Riley doesn’t use social media or post extensively on essays. She wrote a handful of book reviews for the TLS but says the idea to do so only came to him later in his career. Most of the time, she just writes her books. “She’s such a brave performer,” Brown said. “Her books aren’t autobiographical novels, but you can tell in some detail that she was in danger of going broke. She dedicated herself to being an artist in a way that I never had the courage to to do. First love contains a passage in which the narrator, a writer, considers how her financial precariousness has affected her sense of freedom: “Or was it unimportant, really? If only I could dissolve myself, as I always have, in time, in art, when I felt a loss or lack. I learned that when I was little. The other world. »
At one point in our conversation, I made the mistake of calling writing a skill set. “I’m just in shock at your use of that word,” Riley said. “It’s art! Come on! I’m leaving. I’m leaving.” She repeated the words to herself in a low voice:Skill set … skill setShe also dismissed the idea that writing is therapeutic. (She had plenty of actual therapy and jokes saying it was ‘about the NHS so it must have been bad.’) Working on her books is nevertheless a refuge. My Ghosts, the protagonist is not a novelist but an academic, and Riley said she now felt the book conveyed a sense of “terror” at the thought of a life without writing. “Thinking of people who don’t have that remedy where, even if it gets serious, at least you can write about it. What if you can’t turn it into an account that way? ” she says. “Too scary to think about, really.”