Interview: Fay Weldon

Bridget Galton talks to the author about her new novel.

FAY Weldon may have moved to Dorset, but she will keep setting her novels in north London. From the age of 14, she moved between Hampstead, Primrose Hill and Kentish Town, but was hounded to the countryside several years ago by Camden Council’s multiplying speed bumps and the loneliness of living in a Hampstead street where she met only Filipino maids.

Weldon visits regularly to see family members and have her hair done.

She returns as often in her imagination, setting her 2005 novel She May Not Leave in Kentish Town and last year’s Chalcot Crescent in a futuristic Primrose Hill.

Her latest book Kehua! switches between a grand Victorian Highgate house and Weldon’s own home in the West Country.

“The last novel I wrote ended in Muswell Hill, now this one begins in Highgate,” says Weldon, admitting that the next will be set in Kentish Town.

“I have always lived in various patches of north London and it is very useful to set books in an actual place that you know because of the kind of physical detail you can give about the geography of a house or area.

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You have to commit yourself to a setting, just as you have to commit to characters’ names.”

Kehua! is about grannies and abandoning family ties; modern relationships and the desire to have it all; inherited traits and tragedy transmitted through the female bloodline.

It is also a ghost story. In the Highgate narrative, thrice-married grandmother Beverley, who fled New Zealand in the wake of murder, suicide and incest, is haunted by the kehua – meddling but friendly Maori spirits who round up family members and herd them back to their ancestral home.

“You do find that all people who have come from New Zealand and settled here are haunted by the feeling they ought to go back,” says Weldon, who lived in the country from the age of five to 14.

“They can’t really settle and it’s the kehua, I am sure, telling them they have to go back to where the family is and where they belong. It’s a real problem for expatriates.”

Meanwhile in Dorset, Weldon describes herself, the book’s author, tapping away in her basement office, listening to the chattering of long-dead servants who once worked there.

“She’s a sensitive person and she may be hearing the characters in her head rather than the ghosts in the basement or the rattle of the kehua,” says Weldon, who believes some people are prone to supernatural ‘events’.

“I wrote the book in my basement and it’s a fairly accurate account of what was going on.”

Although the Dorset house is Weldon’s own early Victorian home, Beverley’s Highgate mansion Robindale is “an amalgam of those Victorian Gothic-turreted houses you get”.

“We sort of carry our houses around with us everywhere,” she muses.

“It’s a very British thing that we are more conscious of the houses we live in than many people who tend to live in newer houses.

“Things that happen somewhere leave an imprint. People like new houses because there are no imprints and they want to start again.”

Another house described in the novel is owned by Beverley’s wayward granddaughter Scarlet and her partner Louis. They live in the fictional Nopasaran, designed by modernist architect Wells Coates. Weldon amusingly describes the discomfort of residing in an architectural gem.

“I did live for a time in a flat designed by Wells Coates (The Isokon) in Lawn Road, Hampstead, and it was the most uncomfortable place to live!

“These places have this quality of being designed by men who never have to think about how to service and clean them – they’re terribly impractical.”

Weldon was aware of the kehua while growing up in New Zealand as “wandering ghosts who disturbed your sleep”.

“They were not all that dangerous, more of a childish fear. It was part of the landscape, you were conscious of where things lurked – the forest could be either benign or very threatening – there were bits that you got out of as soon as you could.

“There, people got it out of doors, whereas here we get it indoors. We go into some houses and feel there is something wrong. If you are trying to buy a house and get a bad feeling from some places, you don’t want to live there.”

The sense of the past impacting on the present is pertinent to Weldon’s themes in a novel she describes as “a parable about dysfunctional families”.

We first meet Beverley running away from the scene of her adulterous mother’s murder. She goes on to be raised by a man who abuses her and to have three marriages that end with violent deaths. One granddaughter Cynara leaves her husband to set up house with a lesbian, while Scarlet is having an affair with a wolfish actor.

“More things are inheritable than we recognise,” says Weldon.

“Not just with temperament but the things children pick up from their parents unconsciously or absorb as they are growing up. If running away is the habit of the parents, it will probably be fairly basic to the solutions of the generations who come after – that’s what I am talking about in the form of the kehua, the ghosts of the past – all cultures have them it’s just they tend in civilised modern life to get buried.”

As always, Weldon acutely observes the nature of modern relationships – the chaos that can ensue when independent women are free to choose who to love.

“In the past, the only choice a woman ever had in her life was the man she married and that was it for your life, he decided everything thereafter. People do make a mess of choice. Life was much more peaceful when there wasn’t so much. Choice is a truly terrible thing.”

She adds: “Once upon a time men were amazing, romantic, exciting, glamorous creatures who went out into the world and had another life while we stayed at home.

Now amazement isn’t an emotion we tend to feel for men, we see them for what they are and, oddly, that’s a loss.”

Weldon has been criticised for getting in the way of her narratives by putting too much of her own distinctive, idiosyncratic voice into her books.

The heroine of last year’s Chalcot Crescent was her (never-born) younger sister Frances, a thinly disguised version of herself. In Kehua! the authorial voice keeps butting into the story to remind us of its construction.

Weldon says since started to teach creative writing classes, she has become more interested in the process of writing, which she describes as “a very difficult business that is actually hard work”.

“If you take the Victorian novel in which the writer is anonymous, you would choose a book by that writer because you liked the writing, not because you knew anything about them or had seen a photograph on a book jacket. Once that picture is there on the back of the book it seems almost hypocrisy to keep yourself out of the book. It’s like Brechtian alienation when the actor addresses the audience to tell them they are watching a kind of parable rather than something they can escape into.”

Then she laughs: “It’s a way of involving them but I don’t think it’s all that popular with readers. They would rather be left alone.

“I promise my next book won’t have any trace of the writer at all.”

o Kehua! is published by Corvus price �16.99.