We’re delighted to welcome Dr Naomi Booth to our Department as Assistant Professor in Creative Writing. Naomi is the author of Sealed, described as the ‘perfect modern horror novel’; her monograph Swoon: The Poetics of Passing Out will be published next year. Naomi will be introducing herself to Durham at a Showcase during Durham Book Festival, so we caught up with her in advance to talk writing, research, and why she tries to unnerve her readers.
Your website describes you as ‘an academic and writer’, and as well as publishing fiction you’re also finishing a literary history of swooning. Do you find it hard to switch between the two modes? Or does what you’re researching influence your creative work, and vice versa?
I’m really interested in the intersection of creative and critical modes of writing. My PhD explored the literary history of swooning, and I wrote a number of literary-critical articles about passing-out in particular historical periods, as well as the monograph that I’m finishing now. But this research also inspired my first work of fiction, The Lost Art of Sinking, a novella that follows a contemporary female character who compulsively passes out.
I find it useful to write in different ways when I’m researching—it helps to keep my thinking fresh and allows me to experiment with different ways of reaching readers. I’m also interested in interrogating distinctions between these modes: the most engaging critical work is highly imaginative, speculative and provocative, while the creative work that means the most to me makes me think differently about the world around me as well as absorbing me in something imaginary. I don’t think of literary criticism as a separate or ‘pure’ mode of analysis; it’s a highly creative form of writing too.
Your fiction seems to sit within genres of horror and science fiction – and yet always deeply invested in contemporary concerns like climate change and motherhood. What draws you to these genres as a way of engaging with these issues? Are any of your current or future writing projects looking to try different styles?
I’m drawn to heightened genres for the exploration of particular stories. My novel Sealed, for instance, is a work of eco-horror, and I’m persuaded by thinkers like Amitav Ghosh that much ‘realist’ literary fiction has failed to adequately respond to the changing world around us, especially in the context of climate change. Ghosh argues that ‘realist’ fiction has often, in fact, obscured the real, an argument that has been made in different contexts by many schools of criticism.
In my own work, I’m trying to find modes of writing that unsettle and provoke readers. Working in particular genres brings its own challenges—horror, for instance, can sometimes make dangerous material feel safe through its own conventions and the reader’s expectations. I often think about David Foster Wallace’s description of fiction’s job being to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’. Whatever I’m writing, I try to do something that pushes against the limits of genre, that might surprise or unnerve the reader.
My next novel is a Brexit murder story: it’s a more ‘literary’ novel, but there are flashes of body horror too.
You’re introducing yourself at a showcase event as part of Durham Book Festival, along with Sunjeev Sahota. What can audiences expect at this event?
We’ll both be reading from our most recent novels and giving a sense of the things that interest us as writers. Sunjeev’s last novel, The Year of the Runaways, was shortlisted for the Booker prize: he’s an important novelist telling crucial stories. The audience are in for a treat hearing him read.
Are there any other writers appearing at Durham Book Festival that you especially admire or are looking forward to seeing, and why?
I’m really keen to find out more about the Life of Breath project, an exploration of literature and breathing, and the events linked to that look excellent.
The Gordon Burn Prize is a brilliant way to get acquainted with some of the best and boldest new writing, and this year’s list includes some of my favourite books of this year.
Raymond Antrobus is an absolutely wonderful poet and performer, so his reading is also bound to be a highlight.
Looking beyond Durham Book Festival, I’m a great admirer of Jessie Greengrass’s work, and excited that she’s coming to Berwick Literary Festival. Her prose is so sharp and clever and I loved the experimental structure of her novel Sight, which intersperses the narrator’s experiences of her mother’s death and becoming a mother herself with an exploration of the discovery of X-ray technology. I’m also really looking forward to Sinéad Gleeson at the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts (see my tbr answer below!). Gleeson’s illuminating, creative, serious prose isn’t easily categorised in terms of genre and provokes a whole host of questions about form and writing, as well as about her more explicit subject-matter. Her discussion with Rachel Hewitt is sure to be fascinating.
And lastly, three quickfire questions…
If someone were to direct a film version of your books, who would you want in the chair and why?
Andrea Arnold. I love the textures of place that her films create.
Do you prefer to write on paper, or type straight into a computer?
I type. My handwriting is ugly and illegible and I have a bad habit of losing notebooks.
What’s on top of your reading pile right now?
Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations: Reflections from Life.
Look out for Naomi Booth and Sunjeev Sahota at a Durham Book Festival Showcase event on 12th October in St Chad’s College Chapel.