Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Q&A with Tasha Sylva




Tasha Sylva is the author of the new novel The Guest Room. She lives in the southwest of England.


Q: What inspired you to write The Guest Room, and how did you create your character Tess?


A: Staying in many Airbnbs while travelling around Spain – one day I was looking for olive oil in my host’s kitchen, to pour on a salad I’d made for lunch. My host was out and as I was poking through their cupboards the thought arose: how easy it is for me as a guest to look through my host’s things. But also the flipside: that my host could have looked through my possessions and how would I know?


Stays like Airbnb create a unique situation of bringing strangers together – staying in the home of a person you’ve never met before, or inviting a stranger in. An exception to the rules we follow to keep ourselves safe. This was a hook of intrigue for me, and sparked the possibility of the story. What if a host, out of curiosity, went through their guest’s belongings? What might they find?


Tess was born through that question. What kind of person would she be to do that, what would drive her? Beneath the surface perhaps, an underlying incentive. I’m intrigued by human behaviours that can be drawn out of us through experience and emotion, in ways we might not expect.


Grief is one of the most powerful forces in life. It can take us to extremes. Make us do strange, seemingly unexplainable things. Tess embodies that, and through her character I explore how far someone might go.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the novel says, in part, “Tess’ story elucidates the fog of grief as well as the tendency of the human heart to see what it wants to see.” What do you think of that description?


A: Grief can certainly take the form of fog. Tess gets enveloped by her own story, her need to find out what happened to her sister, which is then projected onto her guest, Arran, to find out who he seems to be infatuated with. In this, she can’t see any details beyond – of other stories unfolding around her. Other eyes that could be watching.


Tess has no peripheral vision, demonstrating what can be missed when we get so focused in on one thing. This generates the question: what are we all missing on a daily basis? Going about our lives, our lens can become limited, or skewed in a certain way.


The human heart holds power over our perception, particularly of other people and how we relate to them. It can create an image and frame it in iron, blurring or blocking the reality behind it. I wonder – at what point can this become dangerous? A threat to our health or even our life?


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I thought I knew how it would end, but then a character surprised me along the way, around about draft three. There were a few shifts in dynamics and how Tess could feel a sense of resolution. I don’t like stories where all ends are tied up tight and neat, yet neither do I enjoy things left hanging too far from settled ground. Striking the balance is important.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I hope that it opens the possibility to question what we think of as “normal” in ourselves, our behaviour – what’s expected of us in society. We are in an ever-evolving culture which feels like it’s got static.


And I hope readers think twice about judgement of the people around us. To seed a little curiosity and ask: What’s it like to be you? What could have happened in your life to make you do that, to act in that way?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on my next book due out in 2025, about a homeless man living in the forest. A woman from a local village comes across him one day and is drawn in, going back to visit him and forming a friendship. She keeps him a secret from the village and her husband. Gradually, the reader begins to realize he’s not who he says he is, and he’s not in this wood by chance.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ve never rifled through a housemate’s bag or room. But as research for the story I picked two strangers on the street (one man and one woman) and followed them for 15 minutes, to see how easy or hard it is to stalk someone. To get a sense of the feeling, the experience of following a person, and whether they might notice me. Neither of them did, curiously.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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