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Out of illness, a vital creative life
Sunday 20 May 2012
Out of illness, a vital creative life
Author Peter Hobbs relied on books, and friends, to sustain him for 10 years
In 1996, Englishman Peter Hobbs was on course for a dramatic new life—though not the one he’d foreseen. Just 23 years old, he’d finished a master’s in international relations and had been recruited out of Oxford by the British Foreign Office. He deferred the start of his job to travel to Pakistan for a few months. But in Pakistan, Hobbs contracted a virus and parasites that would befuddle London doctors and incapacitate him for 10 years. He was diagnosed with post-viral fatigue and then chronic fatigue syndrome—“diagnoses by exclusion,” said the author during a recent conversation—and then depression. Even today, Hobbs suffers a certain frailty.
“I’m not sure I can fully articulate how isolated I felt during that long illness,” said Hobbs. “It was all-encompassing. Illness is a foreign land where you go always alone. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t see my friends, and if I did, it was clear that I was inhabiting a different world to them.”
Hobbs, who is visiting Canada for the publication of his critically acclaimed second novel, In the Orchard, the Swallows, was nominated for several prizes including the 2007 Impac Dublin award for his first book, The Short Day Dying. A honed, elegant work of casual audacity, In the Orchard, the Swallows is narrated in the first person and tells the story of a young, unnamed Pakistani man who returns from many years in prison, broken and ill, to the village in the northern mountain ranges where, as a boy, he sold pomegranates. It is the boy’s terrible misfortune to have fallen in love with the daughter of a local politician and to have deigned to show the object of his love the most beautiful thing he knows—dawn in his family’s orchard. After a remonstration with the girl’s father that he cannot possibly win, he is thrown into jail and suffers terribly.
It spoils nothing to divulge this much of Hobbs’s slim, perfect novel. In the Orchard, the Swallows doesn’t need any extraneous knowledge of the author’s illness to make it interesting, although it is impossible not to wonder whether or not the illness, a prison of a kind, provided the author a way into the story.
“Obviously,” says Hobbs, “I used some of what I knew about—undergoing drawn-out periods of isolation and suffering in order to imagine the life of the narrator, say—but I don’t think you can read the novelist from the novel.”
It was during his illness that Hobbs—as his central character does—found some catharsis through writing. And just as his protagonist finds succour in the kindness of strangers—one named Abbas, in particular, a kind man with a library who provides care and a notebook—Hobbs had his own rescuers.
There was his childhood friend Lee Brackstone, an editor at Faber & Faber: “He’d send me relief packages—books, music and the novels he was publishing,” said Hobbs. “They provided me with just enough sense of a vital, creative life carrying on—one presently out of reach but that might prove accessible in time.”
Another concerned friend was the Canadian public servant and “occasional scholar,” David Malone, president of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, a Crown corporation that supports applied research in the developing world. The pair met at New College at Oxford, where Malone remembers Hobbs “shooting around Oxford at warp speed on his bike, a look of fanatical concentration etching his features,” though, later in their friendship, “able to do very little indeed, as walking more than about three blocks would leave him in a state of near-collapse.”
This week in Toronto, his Canadian friend played patron at a generous launch of the book at the University of Toronto’s Massey College. “It’s very hard to make a living out of literary writing,” says Malone. Indeed, the Foreign Office kept a place open for Hobbs for years before accepting that he had found a new, more suitable métier. “I hope for Pete that his health—still tenuous—holds out,” says Malone, “so that he continues to write as brilliantly and movingly as he has done for many, many more years.”
The above originally appeared here.
Different people come to the writing life from different angles. Peter Hobbs did it in a way probably best not imitated. Raised mostly in Yorkshire, Hobbs had just completed a master's degree at Oxford and was set for a career in Britain’s Foreign Service when, during a trip to Pakistan, he contracted a virus, came down with something resembling Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and was essentially convalescent for the following ten years. As the 38-year-old Hobbs recounts below, the enforced rest had unforeseen consequences. All of them have been good for the state of contemporary fiction. His third book, In the Orchard, the Swallows, mostly written in a Mile End apartment during two years the writer spent living in Montreal, is one of the literary gems of recent years, a small and perfectly formed novel that manages to be a lyrical love story even while encompassing some of the most awful things people can do to other people. I cannot recommend it highly enough. For more on it, see my Gazette review from last week. Below is the interview Hobbs and I conducted by email before and after the launch of Swallows at Atwater Library this week. IM
Did you grow up in a literary/artistic home? What kind of books/records were there around the house? Were there any particular experiences, reading or otherwise, that made you think you might one day want to be a writer?
Not particularly literary or artistic, but my parents were teachers, so there were always books around. And I was read to a lot, as a child, and then started devouring books from an early age. But I’d always been a reader, rather than a writer – and though some of my heroes are writers, I didn’t have any plans to write.
When you got your M.Phil in International Relations, what kind of career were you hoping for? During the extended time of your subsequent illness, was it in your mind that you would go back to that path?
I’d been offered a job with the UK Foreign Office, as a diplomat. I guess during the first couple years of illness I was still expecting to be able to do it, but I stayed sick, and it gradually slipped away. I regretted it at the time, but it would have been a different life. I was just fortunate over the same period that the writing came together, and I found something else I could do.
Once you started writing seriously, was there a sense of finding your vocation? Was there much trial and error and rejection before you got published?
For a couple years I just wrote for myself, without much aim except that it gave me something to do while I was recovering. I had a lot of stuff going on in my head, and it was a way of processing and communicating it. I was writing a lot of short stories, then at a certain point something clicked – I got confidence in what I was doing, and what I was trying to do, and the stories came more easily. In terms of getting published, I was extraordinarily lucky. A publisher became interested in some of the stories, and tried to persuade me to write a novel – though it took another couple of years before I realized there was a novel I wanted to try to write.
In my review of In the Orchard, the Swallows I wrote that you had written the novel across a gulf of experience, but on further reflection it strikes me that maybe there are some parallels between your experience and that of the novel's narrator. Would that be a fair observation?
There are certainly parallels, but I’m cautious about the degree to which they’re significant. I never saw the book as being an allegory for my own life. Of course, in order to imagine the experiences of the narrator I drew from my own life, but everything had to be adjusted and shaped. It’s pretty much the work (and one of the great pleasures) of being a novelist to imagine other lives, and my fiction draws as much from imagination as from personal experience (and very little from research).
You've written from the perspectives of a 19th-century Cornish Methodist preacher (in debut novel The Short Day Dying) and now a present-day young Pakistani who has spent half his life in prison. As much as it's possible to articulate the process, how do you find and sustain the voices of such characters?
Voice is exactly it – that’s what interests me most about literary writing, the degree to which you do narrative and character and description through voice. If I don’t have an idea of the voice, I don’t really have an idea of anything – stories and novels both begin for me with the voice. And the fun and challenging part of the process is inhabiting that voice, finding the rhythm and language of the sentences. To sustain a single voice over a few years of writing takes a bit of work – I really need to be able to hear it. It was strongest for The Short Day Dying, in a way. I got completely absorbed in the consciousness of the narrator, Charles Wenmoth. After I finished that book it was months before I could write any other way.
Was it part of your aim in writing In The Orchard, The Swallows to make a narrative that could be read as allegory?
I did try and give the book something of the feel of a fable, the sense that although the novel is rooted in a particular landscape and people, it might also be happening anywhere. And there’s certainly a level of metaphor to the narrative, but I think it’s a fairly simple story, and the underlying themes are pretty open.
Mere mention that a novel is set in Pakistan very near Afghanistan may lead many to assume it will be a book laden with contemporary geopolitical implications. Are you wary that readers might approach it that way?
No – I’ve got enough to worry about in the writing. Worrying about how readers are going to approach it is definitely not one of the problems.
At least one review I've seen, and a comment by a friend to whom I described the basic premise of the novel, has suggested that In The Orchard, The Swallows is a contemporary extension of the classical Persian love story tradition. Was that conscious at all on your part? Do you agree/disagree with the assertion? How much of a grounding in that literature do you have?
I have an embarrassingly bad grounding in both Arabic and Persian literature. As it turns out, I came pretty close to unintentionally reworking one of the greatest and most retold stories of that literature: “Layla and Majnun.” It’s a love story in which the girl’s father prevents them from marrying, and the boy is eventually driven mad. And I’d never heard of it, until a Pakistani writer friend commented that she could see I’d been channeling it. So as much as it would be nice to pretend I’m better read than I am, it wasn’t a conscious engagement with the literature.
"Slim" is a word that keeps coming up in relation to your work. As a writer who has (thus far) shown a predilection for the form, do you think short novels get the respect they deserve? e.g. Have you had any pressure from publishers to "go longer"?
I think this novel was at the shorter end of what I could get away with, and it still be a novel (it’s less than half the length of my first book). Probably it partly reflects my own writing style, and my background in short stories, but I think it’s more that those were the right lengths for those books. As long as a book is the right length, word count doesn’t matter – Infinite Jest is the right length, The Great Gatsby is the right length. They’re both amazing novels. And while novels this short present one or two issues for publishers – for example with pricing the book – I’ve always been fortunate enough to work with publishers who want the books to be the right length, not the length that may market better.
What's your Canadian connection? You've spent a fair bit of time here.
I’ve always loved the country, since visiting a few years ago. When I got the chance to move to Montreal in 2010, I jumped at it. It’s one of the advantages of being a writer – you can take your work with you wherever you go. I’m heading back to the UK now, and I’ll miss the city. I’ve loved it here. I’ll even miss the winters…
As it happens, we've both taught writing workshops at Vanguard Intercultural High School in Montreal as part of the Quebec Writers' Federation's Writers In The Community program. It was a great experience for me. How was it for you, and how did you come to have the gig?
Yes, it was thoroughly great. While living in London I’d been working for a fantastic charity called First Story, which sends writers to run a year of creative writing workshops in disadvantaged state schools. The experience – and the results – were amazing, and as soon as I moved to Montreal I started looking for similar projects. I had a great time at Vanguard, working with two wonderful groups of students, and I’m very sorry to be leaving.
What's your current/next writing project? Do you tend to plan far ahead with these things, or do you try to keep it more spontaneous?
I know what the next two novels will be, and there are the blurred shapes of further books beyond that. But sometimes things get in the way. I hadn’t planned to write In The Orchard, The Swallows – it came to me while I was struggling with another book, and it was so clear in my mind, and so insistent that eventually I had to sit down and write it. I’m going back to the older book now, trying to get it finished.
The above originally appeared here.
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