About Scarlett Thomas
Scarlett Thomas was born in London in 1972. She is the author of the novels Bright Young Things, Going Out, PopCo, The End of Mr. Y, and Our Tragic Universe. Scarlett’s work has been translated into more than 20 languages, and she has been longlisted for the Orange Prize, and shortlisted for the South African Boeke Prize. In 2001 she was included in the Independent on Sunday's list of the UK's 20 best young writers, and in 2002 she won an Elle Style Award for the novel Going Out. She has written short fiction and articles for various anthologies and publications, including Nature Magazine, the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday. She has also had stories broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She currently lives in Kent, UK, where she teaches Creative Writing. In her spare time she is studying for an MSc in Ethnobotany. She is currently working on her ninth novel, The Seed Collectors.
The first-person version...
I was born in Hammersmith in July 1972 and grew up on a council estate in Barking. I tried writing my first novel – The Disappearing Floor – in 1978, when I was six. It didn't go very well. I remember needing a disappearing floor for my plot (and title) to work, but not being able to figure out how to make this happen and so abandoning my project. I read all the time when I was a kid. All the bad stuff: Enid Blyton, Judy Blume...
When I was 10 I moved to Chelmsford in Essex, where I spent a lot of time listening to Wham!, reading Whizzer and Chips and reading teen SF and books about planets or ponies. A strange set of family puzzles unravelled and the upshot was that I was sent to a boarding school in Hertfordshire for a year and a half where I spent my time listening to Prince and reading Jackie Collins novels alongside Shakespeare. I got expelled from my next school for smoking dope, and then worked as an architects’ assistant for a few months before drifting into waitressing jobs. I was very involved in politics at that point, being a member of the Young Socialists and Anti-Apartheid (and various other things). After I completed my A Levels I took another accidental year off – which included being sacked from a fruit-picking job because I went too slowly – and then went to the University of East London to do Cultural Studies. I graduated with a First in 1995. After a brief period working in documentary production and bartending in the Velvet Underground on Charing Cross Road, I moved to Southend to teach Media Studies. I liked the students but not the job and after a while I handed in my notice and moved to Devon to write.
In Devon I attempted my first novel (Dog and Clowns – still in a drawer somewhere) and, after ringing round randomly, got some interest from an agent. She thought the novel needed some work so being young, impulsive and a bit of an idiot I wrote another one instead – a crime novel that I thought was more likely to be published. I soon found myself in London signing a three-book deal for the Lily Pascale series of novels. Writing these novels was fun, and taught me a lot about plotting, but also showed me that formula fiction is a pretty shallow thing to write and that ‘being published’ is not the same as being a real writer. I had things I really wanted to explore in fiction, so in 1999, in a damp and dingy house in Torquay, I wrote Bright Young Things. I also started writing short fiction. I left my first publisher and went to Fourth Estate. I played lots of videogames in my spare time and, in a resulting bid to get out of the house more during daylight hours, got my dog, Dreamer, in 2000. I then moved to Totnes, where I wrote Going Out. I also began reviewing books for the Independent on Sunday, writing a two-weekly paperback column for a couple of years and also reviewing new fiction and science books.
Bright Young Things and Going Out were the first two novels in what I see as my ‘Postmodernism is Rubbish’ trilogy. I don't like calling myself a postmodern novelist (because of Fredric Jameson) but I have wanted to explore what it means to be trapped in a culture where your identity is defined by pop culture. The books don't share characters or locations but do share themes. For the third novel in the trilogy I wanted to do something really ambitious, and also more obviously political. I’d discovered that I enjoyed working hard and spending many hours researching. When I moved to Dartmouth and found myself driven out of the house my military aircraft I set myself up in Paignton Library (open every day except Wednesday) and Torquay Library (on a Wednesday) where I read everything I could about code-breaking, mathematics and World War II. I remember describing the process of writing PopCo as being ‘like making a patchwork quilt’, where you find material, cut it up and add bits as you find them. This was of course before I made my first patchwork quilt, when I realised how much more planning it takes. Then again, a novel always has a shape before you construct it as well, and my research wasn't as haphazard as I sometimes feared it was. I loved every minute of writing PopCo, even though I typed all 185,000 words of it on a tiny handheld computer.
By this point I’d been in Devon for seven years and much as I loved the sea, the river Dart and the little shops I felt cut off from contemporary, urban life. I applied for a creative writing lectureship at Kent University and have worked there ever since. As soon as I got to Kent I began working on my next novel, which I knew would also be big, sprawling and research-driven, but would explore a new set of themes. The End of Mr. Y is set in a fictionalised Canterbury and asks questions like ‘What is thought made of?’. My research was more philosophical than factual, and I particularly remember listening to a podcast of a Derrida lecture on my iPod while doing the ironing one Sunday and being very taken with Derrida saying that praying is ‘not like ordering a pizza’. The End of Mr. Y takes up themes I’ve been interested in all my life: the connection between language and the material world, and the extend to which language traps as well as frees us. This ended up being my breakout novel. I’d moved to Canongate to publish it and they were wonderful – selling foreign rights in 22 different countries and actually making sure my book was properly read and reviewed. The book design (by Gray318) obviously helped, and Canongate won a well-deserved Nibbie for the whole ‘package’. To promote the novel I travelled to Holland, Italy, Spain and Denmark. I hope to do some more travelling with the next book.
Ever since I started working at Kent I’ve loved the university and the atmosphere there and my job – but I’ve never been sure whether I believe in Creative Writing as a discipline. Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing exactly. I started working out a way I could teach creative writing that meant I could believe in it – lots of technical skills and narrative theory, lots of reading Chekhov, lots of asking the students to be authentic and write about what is important to them and definitely no workshops.
In 2007 I started writing my new novel, Our Tragic Universe (originally called Death of the Author). I wanted to follow on from some of the ideas in The End of Mr. Y, but it turned out to be a very difficult novel to follow. After more false starts than I’ve ever had, and more deleting than I’ve ever done, I completed the novel in January 2010. The research for this novel was different again. I wanted to write about storytelling and narrative theory, and by then I’d taught so much of it that I had a lot of material. I wanted to write about Aristotle’s Poetics, the difference between formula and plot, the difference between Chekhov and Tolstoy and so on. I also wanted to write about my dog and her world, about knitting, and about love. I hadn't properly tackled big human-relationship themes in a novel before and, inspired by Tolstoy in particular, I wanted to really try to explore what motivates people to act or not act, to speak or not speak and so on. I am a huge admirer of Tolstoy’s (and Chekhov’s) compassionate approach to writing, where the writer respects and loves all his or her characters. This is not as easy as it sounds! And writing about writing has its challenges as well. Having taught a module on metafiction for several years, I knew enough about it to realise I didn’t just want to have the author/narrator popping up and saying ‘This is all fiction, you know’. I wanted to write a novel while at the same time unravelling it, so that the result would be simultaneously broken and whole.
I gave up smoking while writing the novel and one of the reasons Meg eats so many tangerines is because I had to change the cigarettes in the first few chapters to something else or I physically couldn’t write the book anymore.
Some mistiming (due to all the fastidious rewriting) meant that in September 2009, while I was still finishing Our Tragic Universe, I began a full-time MSc in Ethnobotany at the University of Kent as research for my next novel The Seed Collectors. I aim to finish my course by next April and get on with the novel after that. Ever since I started working on PopCo I’ve been interested in learning new skills as research for novels – not to create the whole thing, but just to give myself more experiences to write about and to be able to imagine new things. I did a sock-knitting workshop for Our Tragic Universe, but the MSc is obviously a big step up from that. It’s very exciting to enter another world with its own codes and conventions and I hope that I can blend all the new things I know with all the old things I know to write a good ninth novel.
I don't believe that novels are, or should be read as, autobiographical documents. The main skill – and one I find myself constantly working out how best to teach – in fiction-writing is the process of fictionalisation, which is an almost unfathomable, but always exciting, conversation between the real and the unreal. The real, as every writer knows, doesn’t make good fiction. But fiction must somehow take its bearings from the real, and in the end have a bearing on it. I draw all my characters out of myself – my own understanding of love, pain, anger and so on. But none of them is exactly me, and none of my characters is taken from real life.