Benjamin Wood | 'The fact that I can’t put the book into a sound bite is what I’m proudest of, in many ways'

Benjamin Wood | 'The fact that I can’t put the book into a sound bite is what I’m proudest of, in many ways'

The Ecliptic (Scribner) is not an easy book to write about. As its author Benjamin Wood says: “The fact that I can’t put the book into a sound bite is what I’m proudest of, in many ways.” 

The story is woven through two key settings: Portmantle, an isolated artists’ retreat located off the coast of Istanbul, and the 1960s London art scene—both of which are seen through the experiences of painter Elspeth Conroy. The novel opens at the retreat, an intensely private place for artists to go and work, one which only admits attendees who have been recommended and sponsored by a previous visitor. 

Elspeth seems to have found respite there, but this is shaken by the arrival of a boy called Fullerton, a young artist who is full of anger and secrets. The reader is then catapulted back to London to witness the events that led from Elspeth’s emergence as a bright young thing of the British art scene to her arrival at Portmantle. A mark of the elegance and conviction of Wood’s writing is that he absorbs the reader entirely in whichever setting he takes you to. There is no longing to be back in the place you are away from until you, along with Elspeth, are forced to confront the fact that they are inextricably linked.

Elspeth’s tumultuous relationship with her art echoes Wood’s experience of writing the novel. He had begun to write his follow-up to 2012’s The Bellwether Revivals, but it was failing to resonate with him. He explains: “I had about 40,000 words and it was fine, it was publishable. It wasn’t badly written—things happened, there were characters—but it was a book that didn’t make me excited to get back to it. It wasn’t the book I wanted to write.” 

Worth his salt

Wood was then offered a residency by the British Council in partnership with a Turkish arts organisation called Salt. Wood spent three months in Bodmin, Turkey, working on the second novel until his grandfather, and then his wife’s, died within a few days of each other. Wood says: “I had a bit of a crisis, I felt totally isolated and didn’t know whether to come home but suddenly the first line of this book just surfaced.” That first line has stayed the same: “He was just seventeen when he came to Portmantle, a runaway like the rest of us, except there was a harrowed quality about this boy that we had not seen before in any of the newcomers.” 

Wood returned to the Prince Islands, a group of nine islands off the coast of Istanbul that he had previously visited, and spent a week walking and writing. He says: “I just got this feeling of total elation, a physical feeling of it being the right thing to write about, and when you get that you just can’t ignore it.”  

This adds extra depth to a story that is already a layered exploration of creativity. Wood says: “I’m always drawn to writing about things that I can’t, or science can’t, explain yet. I was trying to investigate where creativity comes from. No matter how hard we drill into it theoretically or scientifically I don’t think we’ll ever be able to say: ‘This is how you compose a symphony like Mozart.’” 

Balancing the pressure

Once Elspeth has gained a reputation as a painter, she struggles to balance the pressure to keep creating with staying true to her own inspirations, feeling as though she is churning out work without authenticity to keep people happy. Wood admits: “I was aware that, in many ways, I was writing about my own craft — or my own particular approach to the ‘craft’.” 

Having said that, Wood is not a fan of the current trend for novels rooted in the tedium of real life: “I’m sure [Norwegian author Karl Ove] Knausgaard is a lovely man but the pageantry and intellectualism is, for me, quite false. Real life is no defence for bad fiction. Just because something happened to you it doesn’t mean it has to go in a novel, and just because it happened a certain way it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stylise it for the most intuitive, emotional effect on the reader. Every experience you have is vital and real but when you put it on paper you stylise it—it’s not a real thing anymore. You’re putting it under these studio lights and you curate that experience for the reader.” 

The novel is an intricate and ambitious one, with shades of Kazuo Ishiguro and Eleanor Catton. The book rewards re-reading, but the initial reading experience is held sacred. Wood says: “The books I love the most are the ones that engage me on an emotional level and an intellectual level, but where the joins between the two are invisible. The best writers are able to hide all of the joins in their work. Fiction that is constantly trying to be some intellectual experience is less profound than a brilliantly engineered story that conveys the same point. Why bother putting it out there unless it’s going to get people’s minds and hearts engaged?” 

Conversations about creativity and the craft of writing inevitably lead to a discussion of Wood’s day job, as a senior lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck University. Wood says: “The only time I’ve ever been blocked on Twitter was because I was defending creative writing teaching. You cannot teach someone to have talent but what you can do, if you’re a good teacher, is to take the amount of talent each 
person has and teach them to get the most out of it.” 

He emphasises the lack of judgement of actors who go to drama school or musicians who study music, in comparison to creative writing students: “The idea that it’s wrong for people who want to put themselves in a room and get better at something is crazy.” Wood also mentions the fact that he personally benefited from creative writing courses: “I grew up up north, where the ability to come down to London and get published just wasn’t going to happen unless I had a formalised route into it. It’s a cliché that every cab driver will tell you their idea for a book but why do we sneer at that? It’s great that people feel that they have a story to tell.”

It’s a cliché that every cab driver will tell you their idea for a book but why do we sneer at that? It’s great that people feel that they have a story to tell

Wood is continuing his exploration of creativity with his third novel, which he is working on at the moment. He says: “It will tap into that idea of some people having more of a right to greatness than others. I think the minute I figure out what it is about creativity that fascinates so much, I’ll be able to stop writing about it. I’m so constantly drawn to it because, without wanting to sound too grand, I feel that if life has a purpose it is to add to the world, to leave something behind when we’re dead. I think everyone has the capacity for it—whether they are attuned to greatness or just creative in their own small way—but I think perhaps it’s a mystery we’re not supposed to understand.”

Metadata

Imprint: Scribner
Publication: 02.07.15
Format: HB (£14.99)
ISBN: 9781471126703
Rights sold to Penguin in the US
Editor: Rowan Cope 
Agent: Judith Murray, Greene & Heaton Ltd