Magdalena Ball’s magnificent debut novel Sleep Before Evening is finally here. Published by Bewrite Books (United Kingdom, 2007), the novel launches a gripping probe into the life of seventeen-year-old Marianne Cotton who is drawn to delinquency and drugs after losing her closest family member-her grandfather. Set in 1982, Sleep Before Evening presents a case against the failure of parental care and social stresses that push young minds off the edge of reason. Following is my interview with Magdalena Ball about her debut novel and her writing life.
Ernest: Maggie, at what stage of your life were you inspired first to start writing?
Maggie: I think for me writing was something I was always doing – it seemed to happen simultaneously with reading. I was writing poems from about as early as four, and stories and nonfiction pieces soon after, so it’s something that’s always been with me. Like the way a young child might walk around singing. I tended to always have a notebook and pen with me and was constantly working on something or another.
Ernest: You are known to many readers as a poet. How did you choose poetry as your preferred literary form?
Maggie: Well interestingly, poetry is one of the easiest, most relaxing forms of writing for me. I didn’t really choose it. I tend to think in metaphor! So writing poetry is my favourite form of writing and one which I tend to enjoy most. I’ll always write poetry because it’s such a good way to cover a broad ground of feelings and emotions in a very short space. I love how you can bypass all the niceties of prose in poetry and go right to the heart of the matter.
Ernest: Your first novel Sleeping Before Evening is here. Please tell a little about how it was conceived and what was the impetus?
Maggie: I began Sleep while in the late stages of pregnancy with my first child. In my ignorance of both child rearing and novel writing, I thought I could knock out that novel I’d always wanted to write with all that time I’d have on my hands during maternity leave. Of course it didn’t take me long to realize that parenting, like novel writing, was unbelievably time consuming, with a tremendous learning curve, and there would be no knocking out of anything. However, once the idea was mapped out and in front of me, I simply continued on the track until it was finished. The impetus was something which began as a grain of sand (in the oyster shell – see, I can’t help myself) some decades ago when I was an undergraduate and came across the wonderful conclusion to Walter Pater’s The Renaissance. Pater wrote about the ‘hard gem-like flame’ that gives meaning to our lives – art, language, bridging that lonely gap between us, and I knew this was a topic I had to explore. The title of the book, Sleep Before Evening, is also from The Renaissance.
Ernest: You have written a touching account of Marianne, the teenage heroine of the novel. What helped you create her character?
Maggie: I never intended to have my protagonist become a junkie. I knew I was going to do a bildungsroman. I had always intended to have a kind of Stephen Dedalus character and write a kind of female Portrait of the Artist (as a young pianist). I was actually doing a doctorate on Joyce until I decided I couldn’t do what I wanted to do with academic language (I needed metaphor!), and that Joyce didn’t need another thesis written on his work. Instead I wanted to do something of my own. So that was also part of the impetus. But as my character began to fall apart, drugs just seemed to naturally come into it. I didn’t know why I chose that path while I was working-it just kind of made sense. But later, when I finally had the nerve to show my mother the book, she told me I’d completely captured her own short but painful drug experience which she’d gone through at about the same age as Marianne. I knew that my mother had had that kind of experience, but we’d never spoken about it, and it happened outside of my world in the main, so perhaps there was, as my mother likes to put it, a psychic connection that led me to that place as I was creating Marianne.
Ernest: I am curious to know about the setting of the novel’s events. It is in the early 80s, right?
Maggie: Good question. I’m surprised no one has asked me that question before. I wanted this to be a Generation X novel – I wanted it set in that post-60s Reaganomics world, with my protagonist as a responsible (to begin with) daughter of irresponsible parents. I haven’t read many books set in that world, and I felt it was something that needed exploration. Divorce became such a major phenomenon at that point that it was just taken for granted-everyone saw their dad on the weekend – I used to wave to my friends as we passed each other on access visits. But the dissolving of the nuclear family is something that is hardly ever questioned or explored – the impact on children of having a kind of ‘fatherlessness’ environment. I was well into writing when I came across Emily Ballou’s Fatherlands which does take place in that time frame and touch on those issues, and I was so moved by it that I knew that this place and time was going to become critical in my book-Miles too is a post-60s child and that is a point of recognition between Miles and Marianne. But having said that, and despite a few clues, the timeframe is subtle, particularly against the intensity of Marianne’s breakdown, so it’s easy to miss!
Ernest: Sleep Before Evening implies that teens hold onto drugs to escape from the unbearable loneliness. What innocuous substitute you think the young have to adopt in order to soothe their anxieties?
Maggie: That’s absolutely the theme of the book. The simple answer is “Art.” That is, any artistic/vocational endeavor. In the case of my book it’s music. But not everyone is a budding composer. We all have a unique voice though. I don’t want to sound too evangelical about it, and Sleep is a fiction about the development of a character, not a nonfiction book about the dangers of drugs, but the whole problem with drugs is that it does exactly the opposite of what it appears to do – it appears to fill the hunger for meaning we all have in the short term, while actually increasing our inability to make creative use of our pain, hunger and loneliness. Art can fill that void and turn our pain (the pain we all share) into something bigger, and something positive. That’s what the novel is all about.
Ernest: An important issue that your novel brings up is the crisis of failure to relate to a father figure in modern urban societies. Can we assume that Marianne would have obviated drug addiction had her grandfather lived a few years more?
Maggie: I’m not sure! Certainly the absence of a father is one of the elements I wanted to explore, and I see it as something which is prevalent – maybe a little less so today than in the 80s, but it’s still prevalent. But let’s just say her grandfather lived a few more years. Marianne would have ended up at NYU in an analytical career path which wouldn’t have ultimately given her happiness. It would have prolonged the disassociation and the mirroring and perhaps the ‘sleep’ as she continued to be the good girl. But she wouldn’t have found her voice. The death was a catalyst for Marianne’s breakdown, but the problem was already there – something was very wrong before Eric died. Eric’s death opens a door that Marianne walks through.
Ernest: Sleep Before Evening also presents the case of a single mom, Lily Cotton, who is also a woman and has a right to live her life as a woman, besides being a mom. Does she do justice to both roles?
Maggie: I think that Lily grows along with Marianne. She is ill of course, and I never mention the word bi-polar in the novel, but I think it’s fairly obvious by her behaviour. Her illness interferes with her ability to be a good mother to her daughter. Instead she becomes the needy one and Marianne has to grow up fast in order to look after Lily. Coming to terms with her feelings as the daughter of a bi-polar mother is one of the things Marianne has to deal with to recover and find herself. But Lily isn’t just a bi-polar mother. She’s also a woman coping in her own way with the death of her father; with her mixed feelings towards him; with the breakdown of another marriage, and of course, with her own artistic impulses and career. I think she does grow, and in the end, Lily becomes both the mother figure she should always have been, but also the self-possessed woman able to control her own future, as does Marianne. They both go through a kind of re-birth.
Ernest: All right Maggie, a question about the novel’s divisions. At first, I felt like there could be more chapters for the nearly 300 pages instead of making only nine chapters. But somehow it seems that the less number of divisions serve to augment the continuity of the story. Is that the case?
Maggie: Good question. Perhaps I could have come up with more chapters. I just mapped it with 9 and in the end it stayed with 9. The breaks seemed instinctively right, with each chapter containing a kind of transition to it.
Ernest: Were you ever tempted to write Marianne’s story in the form of a long poem?
Maggie: No. I’ve read a number of excellent verse novels, but I wanted to keep to reasonably traditional fiction. Firstly, the verse novel is a hard form to master (I’ve read a few clinkers too), and secondly I find that, while I love the verse novel form when it works, it doesn’t produce that fictive dream that pure fiction does for me. Instead it works like good poetry, with each poem producing a kind of denouement or mini-ephiphany and it reads quite differently. I really wanted a fictive dream here – I wanted to create a complete world of the kind of that good, pure fiction produces in me as a reader. For that I needed plot, setting, characterization and a sense of verisimilitude which drew the reader in naturally. That said, I think it’s full of poetry – mine and others – many of the poets who ghostwalk through the pages are those that filled my own world at 17/18. Like many teen girls, I carried around Plath’s Ariel and Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. I loved Baudelaire and Dylan Thomas and Coleridge, and like Marianne, had a tendency to quote them in all the wrong places.
Ernest: So after writing a novel, how do you weigh your experience of fiction versus poetic writing? And what is your first choice now?
Maggie: Writing a good, publishable novel is about the hardest kind of writing that anyone can do. It takes everything you’ve got, so it isn’t something to embark upon lightly. Maybe it’s simply that it is hard that makes it so desirable a form for me. There’s nothing quite like creating an entire world and seeing the finished product in a reasonably long book. Your reader takes a full journey with you. It’s complete in that sense. So I’ll keep writing novels. But I love poetry. I love writing it and I love the speed of its impact, and can think of no other form that communicates so well and intuitively. So I’ll keep writing poetry. I think that I’ll probably do one poetry book for every novel. So I’ll be finishing a poetry book next – something I can do within the space of a year – probably a full length one (provisionally titled Impact Enigma – I like to get the contours in place first), while still working on novel two, provisionally titled Black Cow, which I don’t expect to finish for about 4 years or so. That should take my youngest child to 8. I might even get a few blocks of solid writing time in that period!
Ernest: Thank you Maggie for sparing time and sharing your wisdom!
Read my review of Sleep Before Evening at http://www.bookpleasures.com/Lore2/idx/0/3037/article/Sleep_Before_Evening.html
To Learn more about Magdalena Ball and her literary works, visit her book review site http://www.compulsivereader.com/html/