Matthew Hooton’s debut novel, Deloume Road was described by Bookmunch reviewer Valerie O’Riordan as ‘portray[ing] a sleepy, lazy, isolated summer community, teem[ing] with hidden emotion’, with a ‘strong impression of simultaneous lives that overlap one another yet remain individual and distinct’. It’s certainly a powerful debut. So we spoke to the great man himself to see what he had to say on the subject of nature, beginnings, influences and growing up in Vancouver…
Peter Wild (PW): I’m interested in where books start. As your book has a number of narrators and a number of plot strands, I couldn’t help wondering what – if there even was any one particular thing – kickstarted the book in your head?
Matthew Hooton (MH): I’m not sure if there was just one thing, but early ideas included a pig burial ground, a missing bush pilot, and a child sitting in a pipe beneath a road. Those were images and ideas I couldn’t quite get out of my head – things that needed exploring. Also, I knew the ending of the story before I began writing in earnest. I “saw” that happen very early on. As for characters, I began with an artist, because I was intrigued by how that character might see the place, how the ecosystems that he laid eyes on became landscapes as soon as he tried to convert them into paintings.
PW: You grew up on Vancouver Island where the book is set (and have also lived in Korea where Irene, your pregnant widow, hails from) – how much of Deloume Rd was gestating for a long time before you actually sat down to write? Would you say that the nameless narrator who occupies a space some years after the novel’s end also performs the role of Matthew Hooton himself?
MH: I sometimes think that most of what I’ve written in the past has “wanted” to be Deloume Road, wanted to address a very particular time in my life, a very particular place. So yes, the story has been gestating for ages. I just didn’t know it, didn’t see any way in. And it wasn’t until I imagined the climax of the novel happening in the setting of my childhood that I realised I could finally write a story about the place. But my childhood was beautiful, so I guess it’s only natural that I would end up writing about it eventually. Granted the novel is a tragedy, but of course when I write I’m interested in much more than just the simple story lines.
As for the nameless narrator, well, yes, I think that character has a voice not unlike my own at times. But, and this is a big but, only in so much as all of the characters perform that role. For example, I identify very closely with Irene, with her desire to see a place as home, and her struggles with questions of identity and community. The one key thing I do have in common with the unnamed narrator is that returning to the place of my childhood has become a paradoxically intimate and alienating experience, even if I don’t feel the guilt my character feels. When I return to the “real” Deloume Road, the memories come fast and furi-ous, the smells, the sounds, but it isn’t my home now, and not just because of the scarred landscape and irresponsible logging that has taken place. I’ve simply become attached to other places too.
PW: Like Legend of a Suicide or The Selected Works of TS Spivet, nature plays a big part in Deloume Road. How important do you think is that sense of things enduring beyond the life-span of people to the book? Also: were you the kind of boy given to wandering along roadsides with a notebook making lists of what things were called?
MH: An exploration of “place” is possibly the most important aspect of the book – the interactions between a place and its inhabitants, the history there, and ultimately the way we look at a place based on our experiences in it. Is a forest dark and deep, or is it alive with light and insects and the workings of the natural world? And how are humans a part of the natural world? How are humans set apart? And of course, what is the most frightening “animal” to run into when you are alone in the woods? Again, this idea of ecosystems versus landscapes. And of course the ever-more terrifying question of our impact on the earth.
And no, for the record, I was not the type of boy to wander with a notebook. I ran everywhere with pur-pose. And I needed my hands for other things: swords and shields, the reigns of my imaginary horse. On the first page of East of Eden, Steinbeck writes: “I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers.” Me too. But I didn’t write them down until I started working on Deloume Road.
PW: I found, as I was reading, that you seem to want to resist the darker elements – there was a part of me, for instance, that wanted to inhabit Bob Ford’s head for a bit. Did you do that to give your cli-max a greater punch or are you (like David Peace, who now admits to feeling sickened by what he con-jured in his earlier novels) more interested in the light than the dark (for want of a better way of putting it)?
MH: I get a lot of complaints about the “darkness” of the novel (this is the first time anyone’s hinted that they wanted more of it). I shied away from inhabiting Bob Ford’s mind because I wanted him to be a dark character. And I knew that as soon as I felt what he felt, and saw the world as he did, I would end up with a broken and hurting individual who I might hate, but also feel sympathy for. And I didn’t want that. Not there. I’m not really sure how to talk about light versus dark. I can tell you I wasn’t aware that Deloume Road was at all sad until a professor at Bath Spa informed me that he found it im-mensely depressing at times. And of course it is sad. But I was so taken with each sentence, with each leaf and tree, all of the “grasses and secret flowers,” that questions of light and dark didn’t really occur to me.
PW: Your novel seems to have elicited the debate that seems to flare up every once in a while about ‘the novel’ with some people saying it’s a novel and some people saying it’s a collection of short stories and some people saying it’s a loosely connected series of flash fictions… For me, Deloume Road is a novel – but what do you think about the debate and what people have said about the book?
MH: Yeah, I think it’s a novel too, but categorisation is a little ridiculous. I mean, outside of being able to find Deloume Road in a library, how does it help us to label it a novel? Or not? I generally don’t really care how people want to think about the structure etc. of Deloume Road, or the label they want to attach to it. But I will say that often terms like “flash fiction”, or “loose collection” (I think Deloume Road was even likened to a series of blog entries by one reviewer), are often thrown out in a derogatory context, and I think that’s too bad. Obviously categorisation is a hugely subjective en-deavor to begin with, and to suggest that something is “not proper” because it doesn’t slide easily into a category is just silly. No exclamation point. I’m not actually mad about it. But it is silly. I get that categories also exist to help us talk about art, and art is in many ways about community, but we need to learn to talk about art without relying on cliche (here’s where I spend the next hour going back through all of my an-swers and worrying about whether or not they’re cliche).
PW: The inside flyleaf copy talks about how everything is connected and there are certain to-tems in the book – the compass, for example, that seem to fall into the hands of a number of characters over a 100 year period (which reminded me a bit of Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes) – that link the action. When you were writing Deloume Road, did you have the entire book planned out in every instance or were there moments of fortuitous inspiration? (I imagine that the former was the case but I’d like the latter to be true!)
MH: The honest answer is that it’s a mix. I’d like to claim that all of the connections were pur-poseful right from the start, but, and I think this is true for most writers, sometimes intuition leads to more meaningful narrative threads. And it isn’t just dumb luck. Writers set themselves up to discover symmetry in their own work. It’s a bit like saying a footballer is lucky when their shot goes in off an upright. It’s just plain wrong. It’s what they train for every day, their technique was good, they were aiming for an area, and it worked out well in that instance. Of course recognising threads in ones’ own work is difficult, and sometimes it’s hard to admit, even in private, when the intuitive connections are working better than the intentional ones. This is the long way of saying I plan very little ahead of time. I pay a lot more attention to the structure and the connections etc. during the editing process.
PW: I was also reminded of Jon McGregor’s first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. Deloume Road is like a sort of rural version of McGregor’s book in some respects (and I mean that with the highest respect)… Have you read it? Or do you find that reading contemporary novels can get in the way of you actually putting pen to paper?
MH: I haven’t read that one yet, but I do read contemporary novels. When I was younger I found that reading a novel containing a powerful voice was dangerous, because I would end up mimicking the style. Now that I’m a bit more comfortable with my own ‘voice’, I think the influences are more subtle. I view reading as part of my job as a writer. Both old and new works. Yet somehow this hasn’t lessened my enjoyment of reading. Yes, there are writers who are so talented I’m left a little depressed after reading them (and jealous as all hell), but overall I love the sense of artistic community I get from reading con-temporaries, of art building on art- even if it’s just them influencing me for the time being.
PW: Let’s talk about influences then. What writers would you say informed your own desire to become a writer?
MH: I love Steinbeck’s ability to write powerfully with relatively simple sentence structures and vocabulary. There’s a lack of pretentiousness there that I’ve always found inspiring, particularly in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. And the stories and novels of Ray Bradbury: Dandelion Wine, the Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, I Sing the Body Elec-tric. I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it there.
PW: Deloume Road won the inaugural Green & Heaton Prize for Best Novel and is cur-rently battling it out as part of the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. How important do you think literary prizes are?
MH: The catch with prizes is that there are just too many good books published in any given year. It’s a great thing. But it means that the majority of readers are going to be unhappy with prize com-mittee selections, and of course it means most writers will be left off the lists. Here’s what I think is good about prizes: some writers get encouragement, money, and exposure (and let’s face it, any publicity for books is much needed). I could grumble about the subjectivity of it all, and about how experimentation and creativity often don’t pay off, and about how books end up being written and published “for” prize committees, but at the end of the day, maybe we should just look at prizes as very public grants. Is that really such a bad thing?
PW: Last but not least – are you currently basking in all the attention or are you cracking away with book 2???
MH: I’m still giving readings, which is great fun, because I get to meet readers, and I’m forced to leave my office (something that doesn’t happen often enough). But I’m still writing. As much as I can. Book number two is coming along. Slowly but surely. It’s also about childhood, and I’m enjoying creating a world and seeing how it compares to Deloume Road. Hopefully my readers will feel the same way.