As part of our Digital Literary Salon, Hazel Barkworth speaks to Hannah Trevarthen about summertime, the writing process, and ‘unlikeable’ women characters.
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HANNAH TREVARTHEN: Heatstroke really captures the oppressive heat and tension of a long, hot summer (for me, it had atmospheric echoes of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave and Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep). Can you talk about the setting of the book and how this came about?
HAZEL BARKWORTH: I struggle with summer. Everyone else seems delighted, but I find direct sunlight aggressive and unbearable. There are those three weeks or so, every year, when the heat becomes something tangible, an unavoidable force to be tackled. I wanted to play with what happens in those dog days, when it’s impossible to react sanely. And I wanted to position that heat within suburbia. It is a place that’s so often seen as dull – as sub-urban – but where so much of life happens. Many of us grow up there, and lives in those less-known towns are just as full of passion and intensity. But they are also places that people yearn to leave, and being trapped somewhere overwhelmingly hot felt like a perfect setting for the emotional situation of the book.
The catalyst for the book is the actions of one man, and then his absence; but is very much a book that explores the multifaceted nature of female relationships: mother and daughter, fraught teenage friendships, connections between mothers. Why did you choose for the women to be central to this story? I really like how you never understand Mark’s motivations from his point of view.
I feel that, so often, we’re asked to understand and empathise with situations – even terrible ones – from a male perspective. In Heatstroke, I only wanted to look at the women who are affected: how they respond, how their distress plays out, how they process his shame, and how they begin to grow beyond it. The tangled relationships between the women were more interesting to me. Mark’s fingerprints are all over the story, but he’s never seen in person. We catch glimpses on television screens, in newspaper print, through memories, but I didn’t want to give him a voice. I wanted him to stay very much on the edges of the story.
It is also a novel about obsession and female desire. Could you talk about the importance of representing these experiences?
It was fascinating to me that some early readers of the book called Rachel an unlikeable character. I was slightly taken aback, because I think she’s just realistic. I wanted to explore the darker emotions of being a person, and being a woman – vanity, jealousy, recklessness, selfishness – because I think they are things we all grapple with every day. When a male character displays these traits, they are so often seen as relatable antiheroes; in women, they are repugnant. I didn’t want to write a woman who had to be a beacon of goodness to be understood or valued. And it’s much more fun to see what happens in those shadows!
The notion of the ‘unlikeable woman’, in my mind, harks back to the idea of the monstrous regiment of women. Could you talk a bit more about exploring the shadows, and the darker side of female identity? The comments of early readers reflect back the societal notion that women need to present as ‘likeable’. How can we break these expectations?
I think you’re absolutely right – female characters can be villains, but otherwise are preferred to be kind and moral. There doesn’t seem to be as much space for the ordinary cruelty and complexity of being human. We see this so much in real life – female business leaders, celebrities, politicians all must display softness, otherwise they are thought of as abrasive. I don’t think it is just the male gaze, either, but the way in which women are conditioned to see each other. For me, it was important to challenge that.
There is some darkness and complexity that feels specifically female; both in having a female body and in certain emotional connections, like the mother-daughter relationship I look at in Heatstroke. I didn’t want to write a female character who was likeable, I wanted to write one that was thought-provoking. All that said, I do actually like her a lot.
The use of The Glass Menagerie as the school play speaks to the themes of truth, memory and speculation in the novel. The structure of the book emphasises this, especially with the reveal in the middle of the book. How did you go about plotting the narrative to deal with these themes?
Any experience we have can only be understood through the lens of our current situation. Anything we recall or imagine will inevitably become muddled and biased, and I wanted the landscape of the book to be inside Rachel’s jumbled mind. Hopefully, this adds to a sense of claustrophobia. This did mean that plotting was tricky, and I ended up having to balance carefully scenes of memory and those of conjecture. I wanted to play with the idea that these are just as valid and revealing as immediate experiences.
Musical references weave in and out of the novel, and one of the epigraphs is Lana Del Ray’s ‘Cola’. How did you go about selecting the music for the book? Did you have a playlist that you listened to as you wrote?
I listened to Lana Del Rey’s first album obsessively when I drafted Heatstroke. I think it functions in a similar way to Carol Anne Duffy’s The World’s Wife, giving voice to the female tropes of pop music – the supine Lolita, the widowed bride, the gold digger. I think it’s a genuinely subversive act, and I wanted to steal some of that energy. Also, a lot of the characters in Heatstroke are teenagers, and music is so crucial to teenage experience. The songs we hear in those few vital summers become imprinted for good. I tried to use music to tap into the idea of past selves and unlived lives. Rachel was in a grunge band in her youth, and is now a suburban teacher. Music is the thing that makes her feel special – it is the part of her she thinks other people don’t understand.
I made a playlist of songs that link to Heatstroke – those that feature directly in the book (one is a key plot point), those that Rachel loves, and those that inspired me as I wrote.
Could you talk a bit about your process? When you were writing Heatstroke, did you draw out a timeline and work around this?
Plotting is the element I find hardest in writing. It doesn’t come naturally. When I was drafting, I covered a whole wall with post-it notes – a different colour for each strand of plot and perspective. It looked bizarre, but it let me see how and when certain threads interacted, and when there were moments of thematic cohesion. A lot of the work I did in editing, especially with my agent, was structural – getting right in and twisting the framework of the novel into something new. It was technically challenging, but deeply satisfying when it seemed to work.
Finally, Heatstroke is your debut novel, how have you found the experience of being published for first time? Are you working on another book at the moment?
So far, it has been a heady mixture of wonderful and terrifying. I think it is always exposing – both in that you’re showing your inner thoughts, but also that those thoughts are then scrutinised and marked out of five by readers. It is also an enormous privilege. Having people read my words and respond to them is something I’ve dreamed of for years.
The current situation has, oddly, made it feel easier. It is not the greatest time to launch a debut but, given the bigger concerns at play, it’s meant that any anxiety I had around the book has calmed. Now it feels more of a delight. I’m also managing to find time to draft something new – something that delves again into the darkness of women, and their relationships with each other.
Hazel Barkworth grew up in Stirlingshire and North Yorkshire before studying English at Oxford. She then moved to London where she spent her days working as a cultural consultant, and her nights dancing in a pop band at glam rock clubs. Hazel is a graduate of both the Oxford University MSt in Creative Writing and the Curtis Brown Creative Novel-Writing course. She now works in Oxford, where she lives with her partner. Heatstroke is her first novel.
Hannah Trevarthen is Events and Partnerships Manager at English. Hannah curates PEN’s year-round programme of high-profile public events, and has interviewed writers for Edinburgh International Book Festival, the National Centre for Writing, the Second Shelf, the Southbank Centre, and Waterstones.
This series features voices from the 2020 programme of the English PEN Literary Salon at the London Book Fair (LBF). LBF is the global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels. Taking place every spring in the world’s premier publishing and cultural capital, it is a unique opportunity to explore, understand and capitalise on the innovations shaping the publishing world of the future. LBF brings you direct access to customers, content and emerging markets. LBF 2021, the 50th Fair, will take place from 9-11 March 2021, Olympia London. LBF’s London Book and Screen Week will run for the fourth year, with the book fair as the pivotal three-day event within a seven-day programme. For further information, please visit: www.londonbookfair.co.uk