Katie McCalmont talks to Adam Foulds, winner of this year’s Costa Poetry Prize. The overall winner of the Costa Book of the Year is announced tonight, 27 Jan.
I meet Adam Foulds in a café in Dulwich, a part of south London where he has lived for the last few years. He effuses about the wide Victorian streets and green spaces, the Horniman Museum and, of course, the Dulwich Picture Gallery. You can imagine him wandering there, observing and storing information to ponder on and write about at some later date. He is particularly captivated by the portrait of Rembrandt’s son Titus at the Gallery: “It has a very clear eyed sense of his decaying body … but also this incredible tenderness.” This is something that interests Foulds, looking clearly at something in a factual and somewhat clinical manner and yet encouraging a deeply emotional response.
Foulds is serious and honest with none of the polish of a more experienced writer. This makes him understandably nervous of interviews and yet, it makes him a joy to speak to. He is 33 years old, was educated at Oxford University and then UEA, but it is only in the last year that any well-deserved attention has knocked on his door. He laughs and says, “I didn’t really configure my life with a plan B, which was getting a bit tense, just before my first novel was picked up. I was past thirty and I was working in a warehouse and unfit for anything.” The Truth About These Strange Times, his first novel, is about the unlikely friendship between Saul, a ten year old maths genius and Howard, a twenty-eight year old, poorly educated Glaswegian who is taken in by Saul’s parents. The two embark on an adventure when Howard realises he must rescue Saul from the crippling pressures of competitions and parental expectations. This funny, poignant novel won Foulds The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2008 and in the same year he was awarded the Costa Poetry Prize for his narrative poem, The Broken Word, about the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya in the 1950s. All in all a heady year then? He agrees, “It was a slightly extreme and abrupt transition from being in your dressing gown to being in what will be a rented suit!” (He will be at the awards ceremony this evening, 27th Jan.)
Foulds had what he terms as the “typical teen conversion” – he started writing poetry at school and knew immediately that it was what he had to do: “It is definitely part of how my brain works and I need it to process and properly value my own experience … in a way it allows you to permanently explore your experiences and the big existential questions. If you are not doing that, the existential questions come nakedly and it can be frightening.” This might explain identifying his younger self with Tom, the main character in The Broken Word. He explores how he feels about a situation by placing a symbolic self in the story.
Tom is a young, quiet, bookish boy who returns to his family farm in Kenya before starting at Oxford. Yet Tom’s home is not how he left it; it is the 1950s and Mau Mau rebels have begun a bloody insurgency against British rule, butchering their old employers with machetes, swearing to gain self-rule or die in the process. The colonial society of British ex-pats responds with extreme violence, and by the end of the fighting thousands of rebels were to be killed, deported to concentration camps, raped and tortured. Tom is flung headlong into this chaos.
More like rhythmic prose than conventional poetry, The Broken Word, is beautifully written, delicate and powerful, each simile deadly accurate, while seeming fabulously fresh: “Jenkins leaned forward / sending quiet words out one by one / like bees from the gap of their hive.” It is also shockingly violent, “It felt as if his fringe kept coming loose / but it was wide drips of blood / that fell everywhere. His hands / were syrupy with it.”
Foulds choice of topic is intriguing: it’s an unfamiliar time and place (he has never been to Africa) and a violent moment of history that has been destined to oblivion, and yet he writes with passion and honesty. He admits to finding himself and this story to be odd bedfellows, but he was first intrigued when he came upon a review in the LRB about two books concerning the Kenyan uprisings, Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya and David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. He was immediately fascinated; first by the juxtaposition of this colonial world and the extremely violent conflict, and secondly, that this conflict had occurred within living memory and he knew nothing of it. He read the books and in what seems to have been a Damascene moment, felt compelled to write about it: “there developed a sort of grandiose hope … that it might take it’s place alongside those books, as a piece of history that will bring it back into the conscious and the imagination of British readers.”
So his first instinct was to write something which would illuminate a dark and bloody corner of British history and Foulds worked hard to keep the story factual and informative. Tom, although of a similar mould to Foulds, is actually a very lightly-drawn character, a nice, normal English boy, and so he can be used as a “clear lens through which [the reader can] see these events”. Foulds also refuses to inject any sense of moral judgement into his work, leaving the facts to speak for themselves: “I wanted it to be a hard, clean, classical sort of a thing.”
And yet, to present the facts was not enough, he wanted to engage the reader on a more emotional level, putting them in the picture much as he has cast himself as Tom. He keeps the factual details accurate but minimal, thereby encouraging you to fill in the gaps: “[the reader] will feel involved for making [these events] happen imaginatively and therefore something has been pulled out of them that they want to confront or feel confronted by.”
This is also where his use of the poetic form gathers strength: being able to break lines, to escalate the pace and then cut it short, to get the reader “to turn corners all the time” – all of these techniques suck the reader into the narrative, making it what Foulds describes as “a short ride in a fast machine”. This works with quiet force in an episode where the colonial Jenkins dispatches two of the rebels:
Stepping with his dusty brogues
into the weak backs of their knees
he made them kneel
and to do it quicker than he could think
shot them one two
each opened head falling away
from his hand.
Foulds is saying to the reader: you must know about what happened and then you must engage with it. Yet he is also saying you must speak of it because look at the damage caused by silence, by being unable to talk about traumatic, violent experiences. Tom returns home after his time in the Home Guard and considers talking to his parents about what he’s seen: “What he could tell them about there, / if he wanted, to shut them up./ If they believed him. / But it wasn’t even possible, / so wildly unmentionable, / like bringing up wet dreams.” He is left with self-hate, horrific flashbacks and barely suppressed violent urges. Even more poignant is when Tom’s sister tells him about their father: “Did I tell you what mummy / told me about daddy in the war? / I thought it might explain things a little. / I don’t remember the details but / something about hearing a man / trapped inside a tank that was on fire. / Apparently daddy had a stammer / for a few months!” His father’s refusal to talk about this allows him to offer his own son up for similar traumatic experiences.
Foulds has just finished his second novel, The Quickening Maze, a part historical, part fictitious account of the relationship between the poet John Clare, the head of Clare’s private mental asylum Matthew Allan, and Tennyson – it will be out in May. His only nerves need be awaiting the final of the Costa Prize Awards on the 27th January for which he’s been shortlisted. I would say fingers crossed, but I have a feeling that this brilliant writer who toys so beautifully with the boundaries between poetry and prose, will not be needing it.
How will Adam do? You can view the awards ceremony live online on www.costabookawards.com at 9.45pm.
In early 2008, Katie McCalmont launched Untitled Books, an online literary magazine and bookshop, and contributed regular pieces of journalism including author interviews and reviews. She’s now working in the new media department at Daunt Books, the independent bookshop.