Matthia Dempsey spoke to Lloyd Jones about his new novel Hand Me Down World (Text Publishing).
Mister Pip was shortlisted for the Booker and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, obviously earning you a whole new readership—and making this next book an eagerly awaited one. What would you tell a reader who appreciated Mister Pip about Hand Me Down World—where are the differences and what do the books have in common?
Mister Pip, among other things, concerns itself about mistaken identity. The identity of Dickens, Mr Watts, even the book Great Expectations doesn’t settle into one version or another. Identity is one of the constant riffs in Hand Me Down World. No-one turns out to be who we thought they were, especially so in the case of Ines who swims ashore in Sicily to begin her quest to hunt down the whereabouts of her boy. This book can’t really be compared with Mister Pip. It is a different beast altogether. Whereas Mister Pip had a single narrator, Hand Me Down World has a multiplicity of voices and offers a bigger bite of the world.
You’ve said the conception of Mister Pip began with the image of Grace being pulled along on her cart. Was there a similar starting point— an image—for Hand Me Down World? If not, what was its genesis? And how long did the book take you to write?
I don’t think it had any one starting point or eureka moment. I had been reading about the African boat people, thinking about lung fish and the Antarctic; I was in Berlin, and much of the landscape of the book was part of my daily beat. As often happens with fiction, these disparate things eventually found one another, and from there the novel emerged. The character of Ines holds the book together. I have no idea where she sprung from. But I’m glad she did— and I do remember writing by a desk lamp in the gloom of a Berlin November about a woman swimming ashore in Europe and feeling—Yes, this is interesting. This is vital. I began writing the book in Berlin over 2007-2008 and finished it in the early part of 2010.
Apart from the setting, how did your time in Germany influence the content of your writing?
Had I not spent the time that I did in Berlin I would not have felt sufficiently confident for it to be the landscape for much of the story. On the other hand, had I not been in Berlin I probably wouldn’t have written this particular novel. I don’t think that the style of the novel is influenced by place as much as a desire to find a form that would release the story.
Mister Pip had the strong voice of Matilda taking readers through the story, whereas Hand Me Down World has many voices. Did this make writing harder or easier? And how did you choose your characters?
I couldn’t begin to say how I chose the characters. I’m not sure the question will lead to the explanation you are after. Generally, I go with voice—I am led by what I hear, and I go from there, and gradually the ‘character’ emerges through incident and to some extent willed into existence. In Hand Me Down World the story of Ines is shared around. The characters, for most part, live in the margin of one another’s lives.
The book seems very carefully structured. Did it require detailed planning or did the structure and plot emerge as you wrote?
There was no planning. The voices came to me in quick succession, and after the third or fourth one I realised that this was the perfect structure for a story that is handed on. In terms of the book’s structure I like to think of it a system of echoes.
In both Mister Pip and Hand Me Down World you render in fiction the lives of characters without powerful voices in the world. Do you think fiction/long form can broadcast these marginalised voices better than journalism (where it might be harder to build the reader’s empathy)?
The opportunity to inhabit the other is fiction’s great attraction. Whereas, the extent to which the ‘other’ can be inhabited is a thorny and contentious area for conventional journalism. Having said that I don’t like to subscribe to hard and fast rules.
It’s too early to say. Except to say, I hope there is a ‘next’.