Charlotte Cory Interview

Calque Press: You are a writer who is interested in (obsessed by?) the past. Is this because it can illuminate the present, or because it’s a way of escaping from the present?

Charlotte Cory: There is no way of “escaping from the present”! Nor would I want to. But, yes, the “past” (which is, let’s face it, “eternally present” is a source of perpetual and deep fascination. Always has been. Be it Victorians, anything 20th Century, Romans…- I found a shard of Roman pottery on the banks of the Loire last week and have been carrying it around in my pocket ever since. I can’t, of course, stop thinking about the Roman who smashed his pot….   

CP: How do you see your work as an artist and as a writer? Are they two parts of a single whole, or are they two separate things?

CC: Story telling, pure and simple. Telling stories - it’s what I do, however I do it. I have a lot of stories to tell. The first time I showed my reconstructed Victorian portraits to a gallery, the curator who knew nothing about me observed that the pictures are all short stories without the words. Spot on.

CP: I think of you very much as an ‘English’ writer. What is your sense of Englishness in your work?

CC: I have no idea! But I am told all the time how English I am. In France, I have restored an old cow shed as a studio and filled it with stuff from brocantes (French flea markets). I feel I am in French heaven. The land of Balzac (who lived just down the road and based one of his novels in the little town), Flaubert, Simenon (whose first job was in a chateau nearby) et al. The odd thing is that all the French who come visiting walk in and immediately go “How incredibly English!” I don’t understand that either. When I challenged one woman about this, she said it was – in effect – all my clutter. “It is very English, is it not, to have so many things all over the walls!” Well most of the French houses I visit have just as much clutter everywhere – generations of the stuff all over the place as they don’t seem to throw anything away. So I am none the wiser. But seriously, I once gave a talk/reading at Waterstone's in Boston with two other writers, both American, both now mega famous. Someone in the audience piped up and said we collectively represented the difference between English and American writers – I apparently carried a lot of baggage!!! Other members of the audience who had liked my book sprang to my defence – as if I had been abused somehow by this assertion. I sat there listening with amusement until suddenly called on to say something intelligent to stop the two sides fighting. I just announced that I was very fond of my so-called “baggage”. It is the pantry in my head that I raid whenever I need anything. As a little for instance: my beloved granny once told me she had had an affair and that her husband, my “grandfather’ (who was 64 when my mother was born) was unsurprisingly enough, not my mother’s actual father. Her husband had stood by her – and died in an air raid in Bristol, aged 70, (handing out gas masks). I kept the knowledge to myself, and the photo she gave me of my actual grandfather (he ran a shop in Bristol). When eventually I thought enough time had passed to mention this, my brother and sisters flatly refuse to believe me. But they all know I had a very special friendship with grandma. It suits them to dismiss this knowlege as my fiction. Which is fine. For me, though, knowing this profoundly shifted reality. But since what we call reality continually shifts. I am comfortable with this upending of the past – in a way that they clearly are not. 

CP: I find it quite hard to pigeonhole you as a writer. (Why would you want to pigeonhole anyone as a writer?) But how do you think of yourself, if you do think of yourself? Are you e.g. a ‘comic’ writer? An ‘experimental’ writer?

CC: Good - I ain’t no pigeon. And I don’t like holes! What I do like, though, is a sense that anything goes. I have a darkly comic view of the world and I like experimenting.

CP: What do you think the difference is between writing a novel and writing a short story?

CC: Focus? Point of view? But the contents dictate the form. Always. In this collection I would say that the first story is completely and utterly a short story. It is entirely self-contained. You could not add to it without destroying it. The narrator’s voice is all. Some of the other stories, well…. For me, you might think that 'Chasing Châteaux' could be a novel. Or a novella. But no – it could only ever be a sequence of stories because my focus shifts and changes. Not wilfully, but deliberately. A reader has no rights over my material. I permit them to come on a winding journey with me through a great rambling château but only I will open this door and that. I hope readers are left with a sense of mystery and wonder. They know they have only been permitted so far. I spend the 6th and last story apparently tying up loose ends rather extravagantly and obviously – and, I hope, wittily. It’s an exercise in story telling – the reader knows I am giving with one hand and deliberately obscuring, if not taking away with the other. (I am actually, as it happens, ambidextrous – you have no idea the uses I can put this to!!). I like this form. A sequence that doesn’t necessarily follow on. It reveals as it deceives as it reveals. Invites you in even as it slams the door. I haven’t answered your question. Too bad.

CP: How do you make use of the ‘real’ world in your work?

CC: I draw heavily and almost entirely on the ‘real’ world. Very little in my work is not derived from things I have personally witnessed, experienced, observed, heard about or been told – mostly a combination of these. If you asked me about any single event in any story, I would be able to tell you precisely and at alarming length where it came from. I don’t “make up” much. I don’t need to. A quick example? The Sequence of Things is based on something I heard about in a bed and breakfast in Ireland (there was a photo of a girl who used to visit through the 1920s after the eldest son and heir had gone to France and died in the trenches; he had met her in London and her parents had invited her over, year after year) combined with an experience I had on the ferry back from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead. Omg – the sea was incredibly rough, and I was worried about my dog in the car. The old man in charge of the car deck refused to let me go below to check on the poor hound and then began telling me about being on a ferry just after the war that was stuck out at sea for 48 hours. When it eventually docked, they discovered the ferry before them (and maybe the one before that also) had sunk with loss of everyone on board. Meanwhile on his ship tossing about mercilessly he had personally let all the horses loose – preferring them to die free and not drown tied up. Oh the things he then told me about his life! How he had been taught to murder as a young soldier and had had to live with the memory of sneaking up on men and cutting their throats ever since. Everything he poured out to me on that journey is all still in my head. My mother called me “blotting paper” when I was a child. I soaked up everything. She did NOT mean it complimentarily. I think I frightened her. My younger sister recently told me, bold as brass, that my mother had never liked me. Perhaps this was why. I knew too much! Anyhow, plenty of material from the “real” world in the pot (and not, in this instance, a broken shard lying abandoned by the Loire!)