Notes, stories & 100 essential recipes for midwinter.
From the best-selling author of Eat, The Kitchen Diaries and Toast comes a new book featuring everything you need for the winter solstice.
The 4thcoming series is all about introducing you to our authors. If you’ve ever wondered what your favourite 4th Estate author is currently reading, listening to or what their writing ritual is, then we’ve got all those answers for you.
Name: Elizabeth Day
What’s it about? A gripping story of obsession and betrayal, privilege and hypocrisy, set in the unassailable heart of the British establishment.
When it comes to career guidance, there’s certainly no shortage of books on the subject on offer. Rummage through the ‘careers’ section of any bookstore, and you’ll undoubtedly be confronted by an array of workplace manifestos urging you to ‘lean in’ and simply ‘think yourself rich’, perched next to volumes promising a 4-hour week, whilst exhorting you to ‘fail better’.
As a young woman trying to make my way in a creative field (advertising), I quickly found that these sorts of books contained little in the way of guidance for those who, like me, were just starting out – and crucially, they made few allowances for anyone whose definition of success didn’t align with their rather corporate narrative of corner offices and company credit cards. Nothing I found reflected the workplaces I was encountering, or career choices I was being faced with.
I first visited Svalbard in 2013, after forming the sudden conviction that I must see go to the Arctic and see the ice. I certainly didn’t have a story in mind, but something was tugging at me to go and have a look. Rubbernecking, maybe: see the ice while it’s still there. Polar bears are all very well, but that wasn’t my focus. I didn’t actually have one, which was relaxing. I was supposed to be on holiday.
The epiphany came when I was temporarily alone on deck – staring out at the peculiar beauty of a slow, semi-frozen satiny black sea full of huge white mosaic pieces of ice. I heard singing. Or rather, the sound of the ice bumping and creaking, I knew that was what it was – but I could also literally hear a strange a-tonal but very beautiful sound coming out of the water itself, as if the ice had a voice and was speaking to me in a tongue I had never heard. I was enchanted as if in a wild fairytale, and very sad to have to turn back when the captain said we might risk being stuck if it moved in and locked around the ship. It had a life, non-human and non-animal, but powerfully present. And I felt it.
I can’t remember when I started writing Reservoir 13. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s not always been easy. Life has often got in the way, as it has a habit of doing. None of the things that got in the way have ended up in the novel, but they’re still a part of the story.
When I started, all I had was an image: a hundred or so people spread out across a hillside, searching for a missing child. It’s something I once saw on the news, and for years I wondered what it must have been like to have been a part of that search. How long would it have been, traipsing across the wet moorland, before you fell into everyday conversation? Who would have had to break away early, to get back and feed the cats, or milk the cows? Who was first to speculate about what they might actually find?
I knew that among these hundred people on the hillside I would have more than enough material for a novel, but it took me a long time to find it. I wrote a short story about the day of the search for a missing girl. I worked on developing many of the characters from that story. I wondered how much I needed to know about the missing girl. But mostly I started to worry about how little I know of rural life.
I only know the countryside as a visitor. A regular visitor, for sure – the Peak District is within easy reach – but I was acutely aware that I lacked detailed knowledge of rural life; not just factual details around farming and land management, but the smaller details of lifestyle and culture which add up to create the rhythm and tone of a place.
I spent a week in a house built for the engineers who designed the Ladybower Reservoir, walking through the woods and hills and feeling the weight of that water everywhere. I spoke to people working for the National Park, to sheep farmers and stone-workers, to police officers, to people who had grown up there and moved away. I read guidebooks and memoirs, and I followed a lot of farmers on Twitter. I learnt about farming routines, weather patterns, the migratory habits of birds, flood management techniques.
Which is all fine, and is what you would expect me to say. But much more than the above, I spent time in my head and I made things up. I created a fictional landscape, with fictional characters living fictional lives, using tics of vocabulary and mannerism which came not from research but from daydreams. You need research in order to keep the trust of your readers – the world you are writing about needs to be coherent, and believable – but you need invention to win their trust in the first place, and their hearts. I was falling in love with these very flawed characters I had invented, and I wanted my readers to do the same.
And those interruptions I mentioned? They were many. There were three young children. There was illness. My marriage ended. My father died. These are things that happen to people. We get through. But there were long stretches of time when I couldn’t get back to my desk, and each time I finally got back, I saw the novel in a new light. This was a good thing, in the long run. But I wish it hadn’t taken so long. I wish my father had been able to read it. He taught me a lot; not about writing, but about hearing people’s stories. He worked as a parish vicar, and had a gift for listening to people from all backgrounds, a gift which I’m still working to learn.
Reservoir 13 is about what happens when a girl goes missing, yes; but it’s mostly about what happens afterwards, for a long time afterwards, while a community has to carry on living their lives. As with my previous novels (perhaps If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things in particular), it’s at heart a collection of stories about people moving through life in their own imperfect ways. It took a lot to write, and I can’t quite believe I’ve finished it. If people enjoy reading it even half as much as I enjoyed writing it, then I’ll be in luck.
Words by Jon McGregor.
Reservoir 13 is out now.
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Sweetgirl’s protagonist, Percy James, was heavily influenced by True Grit’s Maddie Ross and Ree Dolly from Winter’s Bone – two of my favorite characters from two of my favorite novels – and I’ve been deeply flattered by some of the connections reviewers and readers have drawn between the three heroines. Even if those comparisons were to say that Percy wasn’t quite as cool. I’m thrilled to have Percy in the conversation either way, but the truth is there are some lesser-known heroines who are equal contributors to her DNA.
The first is Victoria Roubideaux, from Kent Haruf’s brilliant novel Plainsong. Victoria is a newly pregnant teenager who’s been tossed on the street by her mother, abandoned by a two-bit boyfriend, and mocked by bullies at school until she’s eventually shepherded into the protective care of the McPherson brothers – two reclusive farmers who provide the awkward and profoundly endearing love that helps Victoria survive, and eventually to flourish.
Victoria does not blame anybody for her predicament, there are no scapegoats or excuses, but only the sober recognition of her reality and the willingness and strength to deal with uncomfortable facts. She is radically self-reliant and tough, and when the McPhersons take her in she brings meaning and joy into the brothers’ quiet, sheltered lives.
Victoria is the strong, silent type. A poor girl from small town Colorado, she provides an entry point into what I see as Percy’s stoicism and radical belief in the power of putting one foot in front of the other. And this idea of pushing forward, of dogged resistance, is both metaphorical and concrete. Percy must carry herself and baby Jenna to safety through a snowstorm, while Victoria fights through a maze of socio-economic barriers every bit as cold and brutal as Percy’s blizzard.
Sylvia’s first line is a template for what openings should do – particularly in the first person. They set the tone, start the story, and let you know exactly who you’re dealing with.
Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.
It’s an opening I’ve come back to over and over again as a writer, and when you put it side by side with Percy’s, the influence becomes pretty clear.
Nine days after Momma disappeared I heard she was throwing down with Shelton Potter. Gentry said she was off on a bad one and wandering around the farmhouse like a goddamn ghost.
Bambara’s story is about economic inequality in 1970s America, and specifically New York, where poor Black children live within a short cab ride of vast, incredible wealth. This is easily, if not directly, relatable to Percy’s experience in a small tourist town where the rich vacation beside glaring poverty.
“The Lesson” is about Ms. Moore, who Sylvia describes as the only woman on the block with a college education and no first name, and the day she takes the neighborhood kids on a fact-finding mission to the FAO Schwartz.
The children have never been to the luxury toy store, despite being just blocks away. They would have no reason to go – they can’t afford anything there – and are appropriately jarred by the toys and their accompanying price tags. Some of the children get angry, while others feel a blush of shame. Some are hesitant. They are all perplexed.
Sylvia becomes dismayed at the end of the story when her best friend, Sugar, supplies the homerun answer to Ms. Moore’s question about the purpose of the trip. Essentially, Sugar gets the lesson – shit ain’t fair – while the day’s meaning remains slightly unclear to Sylvia. This lack of clarity upsets her.
We start down the block and she gets ahead which is O.K. by me cause I’m going to the West End and then over to the Drive to think this day through. She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.
Victoria and Sylvia are abandoned in the face of significant inequalities, both personal and systemic, and both make a decision to push forward and fight back. Victoria, with her stoic perseverance, and Sylvia, with her deeply felt, sharply conveyed anger. And just like Maddie Ross and Ree Dolly before her, Percy needs deep reserves of both.
Words by Travis Mulhauser.
Like most people my age I read the ubiquitous ‘big three’ dystopian novels (Atwood, Huxley, Orwell) in year 9 English and wrote some execrable essays about characterisation in them. Thanks to the pre-internet generosity of my teacher (and because she suspected it might be a good way of weaning me off the pulp space-operas I ploughed through by the shelf) I also walked around with Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker in my vast hold-all. (I carried every book for every subject with me at all times because I was terrified of forgetting one). Perhaps the two which made the biggest impact on me – deep cuts from my newly-qualified teacher’s collection – were We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. The latter is a novel so spiritually horrifying that the author interjects towards the end to remind us that it isn’t real.