Hybrid Interview: Kiare Ladner
Nightshift will be published in the US by Custom House/William Morrow in February 2022. One topic of discussion here expands on an idea Ladner first discussed in an interview with Curtis Brown Creative.
Essay by April Yee •
How do we reconstruct a self that has been erased? Whether the erasure is the result of forces macro (a police state) or micro (an abusive parent), what remains is the need to fill that blankness, or what South African writer Kiare Ladner, in her debut fiction Nightshift, calls “negative space.” Often the act of filling is done through writing—placing, on the blank page, unerasable shapes.
Negative space propels Nightshift. Ladner frames the novel with narrator Meggie, a translator, writing the story from a place of security in her forties. Her deficits, we learn, are the result of a childhood spent enduring her mother’s “deep store of anger”:
The outbursts would be followed by tearful apologies. Then by platitudes that made no sense. Then by suggestions of renewed intimacy that I had to comply with if I didn’t want to anger to return. Huddled under her sunshine quilt, I’d be asked to tell all, in particular about boys. It took many naïve confessions before I realized that our intimacy depended on my being the person that she wanted me to be, not the person I was.
As a result, the young narrator learns to step outside her identity, leaving empty her personhood. This negative space becomes untenable in adulthood, and the twentysomething Meggie finds herself drawn to anything to fill it: sex with strangers, a nocturnal job cutting up news headlines for politicians to skim the next morning, and a friendship with a beautiful and mercurial coworker named Sabine. Meggie gives up her boyfriend, her little money, and her safety to spend her days and nights with Sabine, who represents sophistication, self-knowledge, and self-esteem. With retrospective distance, Meggie is free to reflect on her dangerously ravenous twenties: “Negative space is the lifeblood of obsession.”
Such obsession fuels many forms of writing. Consider, outside prose, the sestina or the pantoum, forms whose compulsive repetition contribute to their beauty. In prose, obsession is a site of creative strength—both for the writer, who can circle her subject, and for her character, who is compelled to repeat, to the reader’s dread and delight, the same mistakes. In a lecture at the Tin House Winter Workshop earlier this year, memoirist Cyrus Simonoff asked:
What if rather than resisting anxiety, doubt, fear, obsession, compulsion—whatever words we use to describe our strange and often not sane minds—what if rather than resisting these qualities, or even writing about these qualities, we recognized the profound creative capacity they have to remake narrative: to break, not make, a simple, coherent, and settled self?
The generative power of obsession arises from its destructiveness. Another way to express “compulsion” is addiction: the urge to perform an activity again and again. Such repetitive actions—in Nightshift, the narrator’s encounters with strangers trawled on internet forums—fruit their own compelling details. Sampling large amounts of any substance allows us to better detect their differences: “A smell like boiled sausages on the neck of a wealthy, well-groomed man. The to-do list on a woman’s fridge that ended with ‘BE KIND!’ Erotic art books placed backwards on cluttered bookshelves. A dusty box of tampons in a man’s otherwise meticulous bathroom.” These images compel because they reveal the narrator’s inquiry; we can see, through Meggie’s gaze, her hunger to understand how unerased people live, how they retain their personhood via secret books and banal mottos.
Though Nightshift’s cover calls it a novel, during a class I took in London, Ladner referred to it as a novella, which she defines as a book that can be read in an afternoon. What allows a book to be read in a few hours is not only its number of words, but also its pace and urgency. Nightshift is constructed of brief, pulsing scenes, each sorted into six parts announced in capital letters on a blank page. Turning the page to each part feels like returning to a tragic play after an intermission: though we know it won’t end in happiness, we are compelled to reach the ending.
The book’s narrative time and vantage point allow us to descend into terrifying scenes from London’s underworld without too much fear; the fact that the narrator is alive two decades after events, comfortable enough to write a book, gives us faith she will emerge. Meggie’s survival shapes the meaning of the story, just as that of Sabine, a foil, is shaped by her demise.
I spoke with Ladner on Zoom about the need for this narrative perspective, the fever of a first draft, and how we translate across borders of language, culture, and self.
April Yee: The narrator is around age forty and looking back to this time in her twenties. I was wondering if you could walk through that process of making those decisions and redrafting to find and decide on that age and time perspective.
Kiare Ladner: Initially, I’d actually envisaged the protagonist as being twenty-eight or twenty-nine. But then she just seemed a bit too young for that age, so I made her in her early twenties. And when I first thought about [how old she is when she tells] the story, it was integral that she was older, that she was in her early forties. That sense of looking back just seemed integral to the story that I was trying to tell—in terms of the regrets that you feel in hindsight, but also the much deeper understandings that you get.
In my initial conception, one of the reasons that she was thinking back on this relationship was because she was writing to someone else. She was writing letters. I started with a whole lot of letters. That all gets reduced, but I still had her in her forties looking back, and that was in the very, very first rushed draft, which didn’t even have an ending. It was done exceedingly quickly. I’m actually a very slow writer. I feel most comfortable and at home going very slowly. And in this I just pushed myself completely out of my comfort zone and wrote as fast as I possibly could.
AY: Can I interrupt to ask what that means—how fast was that first draft?
KL: From when I first had the idea to when the first draft was finished, I think it was four months.
And then I thought, Okay, now I’ve got to craft it. I had to make it so the first draft was readable, so it was in a form that I could give to someone who knew nothing, and they would be able to read it and have it still make sense. In this second draft, I decided that I wanted to really craft it, really polish it, and so on. I worked on that for about three months, and I made it very polished. But I took out all the parts where she was in her forties, and I just stayed solely in the fictive present of Maggie being in her early 20s and these things happening as they happened. I think I did it because I thought there would be a certain immediacy and drama in it all taking place within that short period of time.
That second draft was a complete disaster. I didn’t know it immediately when I finished it. I was doing this only because I was short 50,000 words for my PhD. The first draft I’d sent to my supervisor, and he said, Definitely go for this. The second draft… I remember when I got his email. For the next few months I would wake up in the night and almost feel like someone had died. Because he’s very kind, and he was very honest, [and he told me] the second draft just had less energy. It wasn’t really compelling.
AY: And what is that compellingness?
KL: That’s an interesting question, because I think it’s one that a lot of people who write literary fiction don’t pay all that much heed to. It’s tricky to pick apart. I mean, you know what the quality is: it’s where you keep wanting to turn the pages, where the story feels like it has energy, it feels like it’s pulling you through, it feels like it’s whispering in your ear demanding to be heard.
I wonder if there is also an aspect to writing something propulsive that comes from two things. First, I wonder if the fact that I pushed myself to write really fast had to do with making it a faster read. But also, more than that, I think maybe there’s something to do with the process and the absolute honesty with which you approach your story and your characters—by which I obviously don’t mean anything autobiographical or true in the literal sense, but to do with emotional honesty. If the questions and the characters at the heart of it interest the reader, then they’re going to feel compelled to keep turning the pages because they want to find what you as an author have found when you’ve tried to scratch so deep. I mean the questions that we all have about being human, about how to live in the world.
I think of the book Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li. It doesn’t have any plot that I can discern. The whole book is conversations between a mother and her fifteen-year-old son, and they are in the fictive present; her son has killed himself. The conversations are sometimes seemingly arbitrary, sometimes playful. And I found that book—which, if one was putting it very crudely, sort of goes nowhere—tremendously compelling. This incredible honesty and integrity of inquiry comes through. And because it’s being thoughtfully and carefully approached, it’s compelling. They’re much bigger questions about relationships and knowing other people and perfection, versus just living on Earth.
AY: I like the idea of honesty, which brings me to the actual shape of the prose in your book. It’s very compressed flashes, and so it reminded me of photographs and the way we look to photographs for honesty. The short sections focus on a very narrow space of time, and they’re pressed up against each other. I was wondering if you could speak about how you chose the length of those individual sections, and the rhythm that they would create in the way you’ve placed them within the book’s six parts.
KL: I suppose every writer has their natural rhythm. And I’ve tried writing more traditional-length chapters for novels in the past. Something about the traditional, say, 5,000-word chapter clashes against my natural rhythm. If I think of it as a short story, I find that that makes sense for my own shapes and patterns in my brain, but when I try to make a chapter like that, I just can’t.
I’d always also quite envied people who wrote things in very short bits—the way that Jenny Offill writes in these tiny little paragraphs. I thought that must make the writing process so joyful, because you can sit down and write one little section and there you are—there’s the next section. It’s less intimidating. But that obviously wasn’t going to be right for my purposes.
You get some runners who can run the 100 meters and some who can do the 200 meters. I never counted the words, but by that point, by the end of a section, I’m deadbeat.
In terms of dividing the book into parts, that was a much more cerebral process. When I had all my sections, I wrote a big list of them and saw that some of them I could shuffle around a bit. I’ve never myself been able to plot something and then write it, but I have found the elements of plot and story structure useful to bring in at an editing stage. It was deliberate: playing with things and trying to see what pattern makes sense to me, and how the different parts could be divided up.
AY: While reading it, each time you come to a part—because the pages with the part headings are mostly blank—it feels like you’re stepping into an abyss. There’s this feeling of dread as a reader.
I want to pick up on this idea of translation, which comes through both in the fortysomething-year-old narrator’s profession, as well as her status as a South African in London doing a continuous cultural translation. I want to read something from Nightshift where the narrator’s talking about that kind of cultural translation:
Relationships between people from different countries involve translation. And this I found liberating. But it could also obscure things. One acquaintance’s macho South African ways were given the kind of tolerance his feminist girlfriend would never accord a fellow Brit. Another’s impressive small-town nonconformism was lost in Soho’s mainstream.
I found this idea of cultural translation really compelling, and I was wondering if that also factored in the writing, that this is a book being released in the UK and so a large number of its readers are in the UK, and then you as an actual person are writing from a South African background.
KL: If I answer that completely honestly, it took me quite a while to find what the fortysomething year-old Meggie’s profession would be. I knew it would be something to do with writing, but I didn’t want her to be a writer. Initially I thought that she would be an editor. And then, fairly late in the process, I thought that she would be a translator.
I’m really pleased that you chose that passage, because that was actually really important to me—not only in terms of cultural translation, which is really something that interests me. Something I love about London is the way I feel more at home in the city than anywhere else in the world in terms of the mix of people.
But also I was interested in translation in terms of how well we can ever know other people, and how there’s always an aspect of translation in our knowing people. Sometimes you become most aware of it when you are closest to someone—and then you’re aware that however much knowing and kindness there is in that intimacy, there’s still a degree of translation.
AY: One of the things that I found personally compelling in the book was how it seemed as though the narrator translates in a way by overlaying her relationship with Sabine onto the relationship with her mother and using a relationship with one person in order to process another. Can you talk about how this Sabine figure came into your work?
KL: I’ve never had my own Sabine. But she feels to me like someone I know incredibly well. Everything in your life feeds into your writing. You’re creating things out of building blocks in your brain. For many years, for example, I was haunted by what happened to Joyce Vincent, a young woman who lay dead in a flat for three years about a mile from where I live. I was fascinated by the idea that in a big city, the least likely people could be extremely isolated—people who from the outside might seem to have so many attributes that one would think would protect them. I was fascinated by how much a lie that can be.
I remember going to this very cool Polish hairdresser who, in a basement recording studio, took six hours to cut my hair. And while she did it, she told me how much she loved London, but she also told me a story of one moment. You’re fine, you’re in a relationship, you have a job—and the next moment you can be out on the street, and you’ve got nothing. And then, at the time I wrote Nightshift, I’d heard someone talking on the radio about his youth and a destructive path he’d followed—simply because it was the most compelling. I was thinking about some of the most intense relationships that I’ve had with people and sometimes how that can burn so strongly—and then end.
When Picador bought the book, there was much less context; things were more suggested. And then in the editing process, I was strongly urged to provide more context for my characters and for this world that I’d created. So when I came, in that late editing stage, to actually uncovering [Sabine’s] character, I found that certain things—which I think I’d deliberately avoided in the initial version—I had to face now because the novel required it. So Sabine built herself. She just rose.
KIARE LADNER’s short stories have been published in anthologies, broadcast on the radio and shortlisted in competitions, including the BBC National Short Story Award 2018. Nightshift is her first novel, written while studying for a PhD. Prior to that she did a Prose Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. She teaches at various institutions in London and also mentors other writers. You can find her at kiareladner.com
APRIL YEE is a writer and literary translator with work Salon, Electric Literature, and Ploughshares online. She reported in more than a dozen countries before moving to the UK, where she serves on the University of the Arts London’s Refugee Journalism Project and tweets at @aprilyee.