Rachel Genn’s second novel, What You Could Have Won (And Other Stories, 2020), chronicles a well-worn path to fame. After a crucial misstep in his career, failing psychiatrist Henry Sinclair tries to transform his girlfriend Astrid—a singer, a sensation in the making—into a drug experiment. We follow them to a Greek island at the end of Astrid’s tour, where Henry conspires to manipulate Astrid into deeper dependency. What ensues is an exquisite tale of fear, co-dependence, solipsism, destruction, and doom. The book, which is said to be loosely inspired by the life of Amy Winehouse, builds powerfully on the English singer’s narrative, bringing a striking new perspective to a painfully familiar paradigm of stardom.
Below, I speak with the author about What You Could Have Won, her publishing journey with And Other Stories, The Sopranos, and stunted progress under lockdown.
Hi Rachel! Thanks so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
With everyone in the house, it feels like I am writing from ten yards in front of a rhino. Sometimes, I can pretend that this is me at the vanguard of something but mostly it feels like I’m running for my life. I have been thinking about the overlap between ‘homelessness’ and ‘house-bound’. When home is prison, everything’s high octane. Work-wise you’re either in or out, nothing’s gradual, there’s no foreplay; the foreplay I need to get my work in the mood is disturbed by onlookers. They stop me from flirting properly with my writing so I am stuck at first base with it.
See this from April 2020:
“Interruptions to deep thought, like mummy shouted at volume, fire up a petulance in you at a level you haven’t felt since nursery school; like someone has spitefully ruined your game. Lockdown means you are drawn closer to those who are also childish, unscrupulous, lazy, brilliant. You sense in the GroupChats a groping for what Bollas’ calls the ‘unthought known.’ You camouflage caprice as courage. You bomb the poets’ GroupChat, then leave.
Someone mentions to you that Margaret Drabble imagines a companionship with her novel in progress which is great for Margaret; perhaps she’s not the bullying type. A short story writer you admire states in an interview that novels always seem to need you to like them. You envy those who seem to be ‘getting on’ and you refuse to admit that it’s because of their ability to resist releasing jets of themselves from just below the surface, under the slightest pressure. Hell is other people’s certainty. The group chats are getting wild, algebraic, paradoxical, non-sense. Opening a document you consider that style is your attack on reality. You’ve tried bullying the work into submission but then the vengeful spite that brought you here stays unprocessed, you end up with a Rorschach blot of a work.
Getting prepared to be wounded is no mean feat, we have to be vulnerable but on our own terms. Only then can the work can speak through us. Otherwise, it is our voice only and who wants to hear that. Not us. You press down the inclination toward cruelty and try to forget there’s a pandemic. Love of our neighbour, being made of creative attention may be tantamount genius,but did Weil ever think to ask what if that neighbour has the persistent dry cough?”
How have you been spending your time in social lockdown?
In the house with young kids hanging from the jaws of the internet. I think my adrenal glands have burned out and been passed through my waste system. I am unable to calm down and so cycle through unending anticipation; worrying about the effects of each of us, adults and children, having their noses pressed up against the glass of each other’s lives. It is a level of personal surveillance that has to stunt growth.
Again, from April:
“Closeted indefinitely, pretending that unable to write is just unwilling becomes your new vocation and you are determined to console yourself by convincing others of this. You go into the laundry room; a grey galley kitchen with an unsealed sink that you’ve named the Brexit Corridor, and whisper into WhatsApp (it’s like there’s a lid on experience- it’s like I have armbands on my feet. Why is anticipation so buoyant?) The messages intensify and similes degrade. To build up the pressure under your own pretence is difficult at the best of times but shuttling between unwilling and unable, every relay between the two diffuses the energy needed to commit to work. You need an accumulation of energy to breach the silence, to reach threshold for transmission, like a neuron’s action potential, but there’s a leak somewhere. Or a burning off, —in one chat you liken the energy you expend discussing ‘not writing’ to the scandalous setting of oil fires in 90s Kuwait, but the friend, listening politely, wasn’t born then.”
Your latest novel, What You Could Have Won, is now out from And Other Stories—congratulations! How does it feel to have your second novel into the world?
It is very different from my first book. I imagine it is how it feels to have children by different fathers.
Could you tell us a little bit about your publishing journey with And Other Stories (AOS)?
I met Stefan at a masterclass when I taught on the Creative Writing Masters in Sheffield. I talked to him about the book I was writing and the form it was taking. Stefan told me that his brother had worked in S2 where I grew up and I was happy and surprised that this had encouraged them to move to Sheffield with their publishing business. Indirect as it was, it was this that convinced me to send the book in to them. I had seen the other writers that AOS published and was already admiring their ethos. Around four days after I sent it to them, Stefan got back to me to say how excited he and Tara were about it. AOS were the first Publishers to see this book. With the original draft, Tara knew what I was trying to do even though I was not doing it yet because she is an excellent, perspicacious editor. She and I worked together over the next year or so to get to the book I have now. Throughout the publishing process AOS have made me feel as if I were their only writer.
How long did the book take to write, from start to finish?
I blurted a lot of it into a document in the fevered months after my second child was born. At that stage it was not in sentences, all the ingredients for happenings were there but certainly no-one was established and nothing had yet ‘happened.’ It slithered from its folder whenever I put it down: an uncomfortable, seething time.
I was last to arrive with my stack of paper to an Arvon Retreat and still remember the stone-cold dread opening up something so full of what I still daren’t think could be possible. Looking out of of my window from Ted Hughes’ old house, (close to where Plath is buried) staring into a valley prehistoric with memory, hoping to share in the dividend accumulated from multitudes of previous writers having done exactly the same, but no. Over the retreat the pain eased, but only from engaging with the problem. However, I did meet a new friend. On the second day she caught me praying with my hands upturned on a walk in a wood. It didn’t put her off. I discovered she had worked with a lot of comedians. I finished a first draft at her seaside house where my upstairs window overlooked a tiny railway with its one miniature train employed in transporting clay.
What You Could Have Won is a book about the toxicity of fame and relationships, loosely inspired by the life of Amy Winehouse. There are so many rock stars with similar stories—what drew you to Amy specifically?
Toxicity directly evokes the notion of poison, which of course, at a different dose can be our cure. Reviewers of the book have talked about toxicity but I like to think about mistakes and fear. Fear that we won’t be loved in a way that we will be satisfied with (the kind of fear that Fame is very good at engendering). It seemed to me that at her height Amy was dying to die for love. It came off her in waves. She was the hottest, closest to sun. The most daring. A character inspired by her would be a perfect contrast to a man made small by his fear of love. A man like Henry.
Henry’s character is manipulative, insecure; arguably abusive—what intrigued you about him? I’m especially curious about the decision to bring him to life in the first person.
Let me tell you Henry had a number of different lives before that. First person for Henry was hard won. I had to make sure that he couldn’t survive any other way. There’s something very indulgent about using first-person with someone like Henry who has a lack of self-awareness. It seemed doubly right for him. I used second-person for Astrid to enmesh the reader with Astrid’s states throughout the book, only breaking in a couple of—I hope—significant life and death places. “You” may also mean a character is afraid of the reader not believing her story, when she has finally decided to tell it. Henry of course, with his all-being “I,” knows he will never be doubted.
The book is non-linear; narrated through different points of time. Did you write it in the same order or chronologically? What was the process of organizing these timelines?
I absolutely resisted writing the strands chronologically as I believed that something would be lost if I did this. This being said, I don’t think I could actually do it again in the way that I did it. Not doing it linearly meant that I nearly lost my mind. I am always going on about Barbara Hepworth saying a spiral takes you by the arm and by the hand. I believe in this and rely on its feeling.
There’s a homespun experiment where a saturated solution is disturbed by a hanging string down into it. The solution gets used to the interference then can’t help but become obsessed by the string, defining itself in relation to it until it returns to its original crystalline self clinging to the string (once an irritating alien).
Writing this book was like flower arranging where it is the flowers that choose where they want to go.
Is that enough metaphors to convince you that I don’t know?
I’ve been dying to ask you about The Sopranos box set, which plays such a key role throughout the novel. How would you characterize your relationship with the show?
I feel like Astrid’s relationship to Tony in the book, especially in the dreams she has of him as her therapist, is similar to the feelings that I accrued over the series. See below from the book:
“Before even the first season ended you caught yourself in the lag of grief at the watchfulness being only one way and were devastated at his lack of concern about how the story might be affecting you. Trying hard to get into Tony’s gang, Henry pulled away from you, sacrificed you, wanted you to disappear once an episode had finished. There was a jostling that went on as you watched because you both wanted to impress him. Privately, you began to wonder whether Tony might love you? When Tony wanted someone, to fuck them or to kill them, you felt hunted and completely defenseless and frantic for cover in your own apartment because now you were part of their territory and your thin soul lay taut, immobile and desperate to be discovered. Who should you turn to but Tony? Because Henry was nothing like Tony. Was he.
You feigned tiredness but it was honest-to-God heartbreak when Henry wouldn’t watch just one more. Such sadness followed you into sleep and that sleep pushed you into dark corners with Tony who would always stay behind after hours but made you do the things that frightened you the most, testing out what he could get up to in a country where the borders weren’t fixed and the laws had loosened; where he didn’t have to care which cops to pay off; where modern reforms weren’t able to endure. I don’t give all women this chance, he’d say into your open mouth, ripping your stitches wide: stitches made from precise narrow strips of your own skin. After you dreamed of him, Tony always left a stain, a shadow.
Some dreams made Tony your therapist, arranging sessions for you on a canal boat that moved sluggishly as though through tar. He’d sit with his legs wide open as if he wasn’t used to skirts of this length, and his Laurelesque feet jutted toward you in a V and as he rearranged himself you could even hear the sticky squeak of his patent heels rubbing together. The sky and the water were oil dark and had an apocalyptic depth to them that threatened to overwhelm you. Tony sharpened his pencil shavings onto the tight skirt bridging his knees. You knew that Tony wasn’t wearing underwear and the gap up his skirt tugged hard at your attention. He always looked you right in the eye and that began a melting invasion of wanting.”
In addition to writing, you’re also a neuroscientist and artist—how do you go about separating your projects? Do you find that they often overlap creatively?
There’s absolutely no separating them. Even if you put a border down, they grow over it. You turn your back and they’re upon you, like What time is it Mr Wolf, but with bind weed. I talk more extensively about their intermingling here.
Gerald Murnane wrote in a book review, — ‘one of the most satisfying results of reading good fiction: the places imagined by a writer merge sometimes into my own imagined places.’
Formally speaking I have begun to ask: How might we study triggers to immersion put in place by the artist and do these map onto immersion in the storyworld? Robots are probably best placed to answer.
You’re currently at work on a binaural experience exploring paranoia, and a collection of nonfiction about fighting and addiction to regret—could you tell us a little bit about these?
The first imperative of paranoia is that there must be no big surprises. I’m very interested in texts that can implicitly convey atmospheres of paranoia (The Fox Was Ever the Hunter for instance) and want to know how Alternate Reality and 3D soundscapes can induce or dampen tendency toward paranoia. I heard someone say that regrets are failures of kindness and there’s no failure of kindness like a full-weight punch that connects. Links between aggression, paranoia and jealousy are what I am obsessed by and a combination of the three define the culture I was raised in.
Given the events that continue to transpire this year, has 2020 steered your writing and art in a particular direction?
I have had a rather large revelation about the common ground between trusting myself and trusting in God (see also: eternity and the moment). I think I now know that not finding a way in to an image or subject that is beckoning me does not mean I have no business there. Transition to menopause during lockdown has been, in the kindest terms, a crucible. My reality is flammable but I can’t wait to see what’s left afterwards. I just hope myself and the younger, more tender ones I live with make it through without too much damage.
Writing through forms to get to others seems to be what is happening to me. I have an idea a creole of types of knowledge, a “knowledge as becoming” might appear. If it does, I’ll rag it to the ground.
What are some books you’ve read and loved this year?
Holly Pester’s Comic Timing; Murnane’s Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs; Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory (translated by Sasha Dugdale). I return perennially to The Soul of the White Ant. Gunslinger by Ed Dorn; Mercy Oceans Pink Pearls by Sheikh Nazim Effendi. I read Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann (and watched The Dreamed Ones back to back). Bachmann and Celan dreaming of searching for a lamp together in letters will never leave me. I am part of a bookklub that only reads Nobel Prize Winners. And a Long Poem Klub; both run by my friend Laurence Piercy. Therefore some of the blame lies with him.
Lastly, are there any independent book stores—either in the US or UK that you’d like to recommend to our readers?
As well as a Greek island, WHAT YOU COULD HAVE WON takes place in the Bay Area and in NYC. City Lights in San Francisco is one of my all time favourite spaces and I visited the same year as I puked at Alcatraz. Malvern Books in Austin (where during SXSW I saw Foster Wallace’s Creative Writing schedule with hand-written notes, Taxi Driver’s jacket and Gloria Swanson ephemera by wandering into Harry Ransom Centre). I also walked out of town to the springs to swim in March which locals saw as bordering on illegal. This was the first time I had ever left my kids for a week. On the flight, I watched Bright Lights (the documentary about Carrie Fisher’s relationship to Debbie Reynolds which ends with Debbie claiming “I want to be with Carrie” after Carrie’s death) back to back with Manchester by the Sea. I needed sedating by the time I got to Atlanta for my connection.
I did an interview with Kate Smith for Malvern Books in Austin and with So Mayer at Burley Fisher Books and signed copies of WHAT YOU COULD HAVE WON may still be available from both.
I buy my books from my local Sheffield Independents La Biblioteka (@LaBiblioteka) and Rhyme and Reason (@RhymeAndReas).
What You Could Have Won is out now from And Other Stories, and available wherever books are sold.