Bethany W Pope is an award-winning, daringly experimental, and amazingly prolific writer. From her first published collection of poetry, A Radiance (Cultured Llama), through to her most recent book, her debut novel, Masque (Seren), her distinctive writing style, accompanied by her unflinching approach to her subject, have earned her wide-spread and deserved critical acclaim.
Carly Holmes: Since your first poetry collection was published, in 2012, you’ve published five further books (Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books), The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press), Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing), The Rag and Boneyard (Indigo Dreams), and Masque, with another forthcoming this autumn. Is this writing schedule, which is prolific by anyone’s standards, the norm for you, or did you have a chest of unpublished manuscripts, the accumulation of years of writing, in your home?
Bethany W. Pope: I do have several unpublished manuscripts in my home, but they linger out of laziness. If I don’t start sending them out as soon as they are edited, I tend to forget that I’ve written them. I usually alternate between writing poetry and prose (I’ve always got something on the go) and if I’ve just placed a manuscript I don’t send out any more for about six months, so things accumulate. One exception to this general rule of lost manuscripts was actually The Rag and Boneyard. I wrote this collection about two weeks after placing my first book (I got really obsessed, for a while, with writing a novel-in-verse. I wanted to combine the effects of poetry and prose) and I never would have done anything with it at all if Matthew (my spouse-type-person) had not repeatedly needled me about trying to place it. So, eventually, five years after writing it, I sent it to Indigo Dreams. I have six books out now, another one coming, and seven more floating around in my dropbox – some of which I haven’t looked at in years.
Masque is your debut novel. Weighed against your other published books, which are all poetry collections, would it be fair to say that your main love, as a writer, is poetry as opposed to prose? Which genre tugs at you most powerfully?
I’ve always written both, and they tend to be tied pretty closely together. I published my first piece of prose about a week after my first accepted poem. But, having said that, poetry definitely comes more easily to me. It takes less out of me to write, say, a double-acrostic sonnet crown than it does to write a short story. If I go too long without writing a poem, I tend to get very cranky and generally uncomfortable to be around. This doesn’t mean that I enjoy writing prose any less (there is, literally, no better feeling than the sustained intensity of writing a novel) but it does mean that poetry gives me fewer headaches and nosebleeds.
Your poetry ranges from bruisingly auto-biographical to intensely mythical, and often both at the same time. In A Radiance, the experiences of your grandparents and parents, and also your own childhood, are mined for the page. In The Gospel of Flies, intimate moments of your marriage are tenderly and erotically laid out. How much does it cost you, to give so much of yourself, your life, to the reader, and have them feel that they know you though your writing?
Most of the time, growing up, I felt that no one ever really saw me or what I was – or, if they did, what they saw was something repugnant or warped. When I reveal things about myself in my writing (however uncomfortable) I have control over it. I can present a truer image. I can prove (to myself, no one else) that I am real. Sometimes people do think that they know me intimately after reading my books and, to an extent, that is true. They are observing an aspect of my mind, engaging with me in a very limited form of telepathy. It’s not true intimacy, though. It isn’t reciprocal. There’s no take to counter my give, and that gives me a sense of control as well. I feel oddly safe, revealing myself through tightly controlled formal poetry. It’s like dancing, naked, behind a sheet of bullet-proof glass.
You were born in America and have, in your own words, “lived in five states and five countries including, for several years, an orphanage in South Carolina.” You completed your post-graduate education in Wales, and now you live in Swindon. How much do you think this peripatetic and somewhat rootless history has influenced your writing?
Well, my first collection (A Radiance) was all about discovering my roots. I wrote it just after finishing The Debtford Trilogy, a marvelous series of novels by Robertson Davies, which serves as basically a crash-course in Jungian psychology. One of the key lines, for me, was ‘Learn something about yourself, before it’s too late.’ My family deals in secrecy, in masks, in carefully crafting an image of itself to display before the world so that other people will think well of them, and so that they will gain (and maintain) a certain amount of status among a (very limited) strata of society which they think of as ‘the world’. I was always very, very bad at wearing that kind of mask. All of my persona were (and are) just magnifications of myself. Reading that series gave me permission to strip away the lies and reveal the shapes of the bones which lie beneath them. As is often the case, those bones turned out to be pretty darned mythic. As for my rootlessness, I don’t think that people who have a secure idea of themselves (as individuals, or as members of a stable family) ever feel the need to either try to plant themselves in history or dig it up. I think that I’ve always craved that thing which most other people seem to have (unconditional parental love, a stable family history, something to stand on) and that my desire for those things is definitely a contributing factor for my art. On the other hand, I am aware that envy is a deadly sin. I’ve tried to use it as a goad to drive myself rather than allow it to become a destructive force. I am also aware that this emptiness, this sense of ‘nothing’ also doubles as a gift. I would not be myself without it, and I like what I’ve become.
Masque is a retelling of Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, with the strap-line: “This is not the story you think you know”. What drew you to retell this particular classic novel?
The original novel is an Edwardian mystery, a wonderfully pulpy whodunit, populated by archetypes; characters who are hardly characters, lacking as they do in any sort of nuance or depth. I read it for the first time when I was eleven, right after I caught the original, silent, Lon Chaney version on TV at three in the morning. I never slept much, as a child. I liked to be alone in the dark. I loved both versions, unabashedly, and without question. I have to say that the character of The Phantom planted himself like a hook in my brain. He’s all these things: fearsome, brilliant, soppy, pathetic, wounded, beautiful and horrific all at once. I saw myself in him, but reversed. In the book (and in the film) he starts out displaying his gifts (his music, his engineering genius, his capacity for love) and hiding his deformity and his blood-lust. Halfway through the story (after his abduction of Christine) that flips and suddenly it’s his monstrous nature that’s out in front. As a child, I felt that my own monstrousness (I was the ‘bad’ kid, the evil kid, the one who was always unsatisfactory, whose character was flawed, and who would never measure up without extensive ‘correction’) was on display for the world, that my gifts were hidden, and that there was nothing that I could do to change it. This feeling was exacerbated while I was in the orphanage. I wrote this poem about something which happened there:
Standing there, stripped skeletal, I shivered with cold
the early spring-light filtering through the windows.
Though still a child, I felt incredibly old;
hands folded across my chest-bones, my groin, like Eve after God
caught her in the garden with berry-stained lips. I froze,
standing there — stripped. Skeletal, I shivered with cold
while my housemother led the other girls around
me in a circle, chanting my sins. They’d taken my clothes.
Though still a child, I felt incredibly old.
They called me ‘dogface’, ‘fishbreath’, ‘lesbian whore’. Bold
girls, all of them, grabbing the wound they punished me for. On show,
standing there (stripped skeletal) I shivered with cold,
waiting, blank-faced, for them to get bored,
sick of explaining that rape wasn’t something I chose.
Though still a child, I felt incredibly old,
as though their hands, their eyes, their spit (cold
on my cheeks) had mummified me from my hair to my toes.
I stood there, stripped skeletal, shivering with cold;
though still a child I felt incredibly old.
Like most monsters, I longed to be revealed as something that was ultimately loveable and good. That was my connection to The Phantom (and to a great many other pulp characters, now that I think about it). At the same time, I found myself thinking about Christine. In the book, she was pretty much just a doll. She didn’t have any desire or ambition of her own — she wanted to be a singer, but only to a certain extent. Certainly she was glad enough to give it up to become the wife of a Vicomte! I did not think that this was a realistic depiction of an artist. I started thinking about what she would have been like if she had been made of flesh, blood, and firing synapses. I wanted to bring her to life by applying lightning to her temples.
And following on from that question, how hard did you find it to imagine your own versions of each of the main characters, breathing life into them to make them your creations (particularly Christine and the Phantom) when they have become, through literature as well as adaptations for the stage and screen, so familiar to so many people?
Ha! I think I jumped the gun, a bit, answering the previous question. It wasn’t hard. They were a part of me already. Every character, in every book, is a fragment of the author. I’ve even got a little bit of innocent, selfish Raoul floating around in my guts.
I have to confess that I haven’t read Leroux’s novel yet, but I know Webber’s same-titled musical inside out! I was in love with the anti-heroic Phantom from an early age, and your treatment of his character in Masque demonstrates a similar attachment. Are you particularly attracted to writing about the ‘monsters’ of literature and life? If so, why do you think that is?
I think that I should have read through these questions before answering them. As a child (and as an adult) all of my heroes (anti or otherwise) are either not-quite-human or badly misunderstood. My earliest literary hero was the trickster, Odysseus. My father read a translation of The Odyssey to me when I was a very small child. I was especially drawn to the character of Polyphemus (when I heard that chapter, I had nightmares about an army of tiny men gouging my eye out for months) and my favourite scenes involved either physical transformation (the island of Circe and his return, in disguise, to Ithaca) or a painfully revealing descent into hell. When I was a preteen I developed a bit of a Lon Chaney fetish, obsessively watching every one of his films that I could get my grubby little paws on. At the same time, I fell hard for swashbucklers — Errol Flynn as Captain Blood and The Dread Pirate Roberts — both of whom get things done by pretending to be someone else. They both do good by play-acting villainy. As a teenager, I found myself drawn to superheroes — two in particular. Nightcrawler, one of the X-Men, who is a superpowered human that looks like a demon and is often treated as such, and Hellboy, an actual demon who has chosen to deny his nature. Both act morally (and with humour) in the face of evil and hatred, and I loved that. Funnily enough, this kind of complex hero more often emerges in pulp than in traditional literature. I’d very much like to change that. My take on The Phantom is far from heroic, but there is a shadow of nobility on him, and he does have a sharp laugh. He’s less my heroic ideal than a reflection of my secret self.
Your most recent poetry publication, The Rag and Boneyard, is a sharply imagined and fantastically written re-telling of the Persephone myth, set in bootleg America. If you had decided to modernise Masque and set it in a vastly different era and place, when and where do you think you would have chosen?
Oh that’s hard. I think that it would be difficult to do, because it is a story about art and identity, and it would have to be set in a place conducive to those themes. The theatre is really the only setting for it. I’m using ‘theatre’ as an umbrella term. If it were modernised, I suppose that the easy answer is that it would take place on Broadway, but I think that the story needs the romantic trappings of Victorian Paris to work. By setting it long ago and far away (and, remember, it was an historical novel when the original novel was written) the readers are able to accept it as they would a fairy tale or myth. They can take it seriously because it appears to be ‘just’ a story. A modern setting might make it into a melodramatic comedy. That might not be a bad thing, but it wouldn’t serve my purpose.
As well as being an award-winning poet you’re also an award-winning reviewer, and an individual who has endless fascination for the world we live in. Do you have any plans to focus on creative non-fiction in the future? For example a memoir, or a book about Italian architecture, or the physiology of a bat’s reproductive organs..?!
I long to write a monograph about the reproductive habits of the hyena. They’re another thing which I identify with. For a long time, scientists assumed that they were patriarchal because they thought they’d never seen a female. They thought that the females never left the den. But then, it turned out that all of the pack leaders were female, and that every female is larger than the biggest of the males. You’d think that male and female representatives of the species would be relatively easy to identify with a quick peep between the legs, but you’d be wrong. What the naturalists had taken for the enormous phallus of the dominant male turned out to be a seven-inch clitoris with a birth canal running through it. And the species itself, which was always thought of as a group of lazy scavengers, turned out to be composed of clans of fierce hunters who the prides of lions scavenged from. You can see why I’d find this subject appealing.
And finally, what’s next?
I honestly have no idea. I just finished writing another novel, and another poetry collection, but I’m not sure what to do with them yet. Everything I make serves as a surface upon which to build the next project, and I’m working largely from instinct, so I’m not quite sure what’s to come. I’m working in the dark.