Sunday, February 16, 2020

Q&A with Elleke Boehmer

Elleke Boehmer is the author of the new story collection To the Volcano and Other Stories. Her other books include the novels Screens Against the Sky and The Shouting in the Dark. She is Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford, and she lives in Oxford, UK.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection?

A: The stories in To the Volcano were written across an intensive period of about three years, from late 2015 following the publication of my novel The Shouting in the Dark, to 2018.

In this period I was fortunate to be able to travel to and through a number of different countries in the far southern hemisphere, and reflect on their contrasts and correspondences, and, especially, their remoteness and their specialness.

Some of the perceptions and ideas on which the stories draw, however, date from far further back.

The first story, “The Child in the Photograph”, has been with me as a preoccupation for many years, for example; the same applies to “Paper Planes”, though its theme, of dementia and the relationship between the elderly and the very young, is very different.

Q: How did you choose the order in which the stories would appear in the book?

A: Sifting and sorting the 12 stories into the order in which they appear in the collection was an interesting challenge.

It was important to me, first, that the two longer short stories, both of which reflect on lives beyond their endpoints, or on life beyond a character's death, as perceived by their loved ones, appeared at the end of the collection, and, second, that “Evelina”, a response to James Joyce's “Eveline”, appeared as the fourth story, as “Eveline” does in Dubliners.

Beyond that, there was a certain amount of chopping and changing, as I wanted to make sure that neighbouring stories resonated.

So we see for example that both “The Child in the Photograph” and “South, North” are about women characters travelling to northern European countries with large hopes, and then finding that the reality there doesn't quite meet their expectations.

Q: How was the book's title--also the title of one of the stories--chosen?

A: As my editors at Myriad will remember, we thought about many different titles before To the Volcano sprang into focus. We wanted to capture the theme of distance and remoteness, but the title South on its own didn't quite cut it, it wasn't evocative enough.

When the title of the third story emerged, though, we knew it was exactly right, signalling as it does journey and quest, reaching for somewhere and then finding that what you encounter is not quite what you were anticipating.

I also enjoyed the resonance of Malcolm Lowry and Virginia Woolf, and, as readers of the story “To the Volcano” will discover, the partial joke that's buried in the title about the volcano in question. 

Q: What additional themes do you see running through the collection?

A: As well as the themes of remoteness and encounter across distance I've already mentioned, and also of places and people eluding our expectations, a thread that runs throughout, perhaps it runs through much of my work, is the idea that the prizes we most fervently seek might be closer to home than we imagine: that thing about arriving where we began and knowing the place for the very first time...

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've begun a new novel, a love story, about Antarctica, about a passionate love affair between two people, one on the white continent, one elsewhere, that is necessarily carried on remotely, and the consequences of this remoteness for that passion. So the theme of distance will continue. Albatrosses will feature prominently, and the demands and pitfalls of keeping a promise.

I'm also starting on a new short story collection -- I've really got the form now, or it has got me, and can't stop! I currently have three stories on the blocks I'm reasonably happy with.

In the remaining time I'm also beginning a literary history of the far southern hemisphere: the environmental and climactic themes are already proving to be very intriguing. I'm thinking about sharks coasting along the powerful currents of the Southern Ocean, and related topics. More albatrosses!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: All of the characters in To the Volcano stepped forward for me in really strong and compelling ways as I wrote the stories. They had voice, vision, a definite shape. I hope that's how it appears to the reader too.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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