Kim Sherwood, award-winning author of Testament, talks to Miriam Al Jamil about her debut novel and its origins, her creative process and her exciting second novel.
Your first novel Testament was published in 2018 to great acclaim. It tells the story of a Holocaust survivor and his granddaughter’s efforts to uncover his past and to understand her family’s complex and troubled relationships. It certainly doesn’t feel like a first novel. Were you conscious of staking your claim as a new novel writer and had your previous writing prepared you for the task?
It took me six years to write and I only had an agent towards the end, so I wrote it for myself and without expecting an audience or that anyone would read it and this allowed me not to be self-conscious. My grandmother is a survivor and the book enabled a new conversation within my family, which in itself was a big step. My grandmother hadn’t talked about it and I was aware of her silence but not more than that. Then in primary school, for a project, I asked her whether she had ever seen Hitler and when she said yes, I was so scared I didn’t ask her any more. She later began to tell fragments of her story and I began to research the Holocaust in Hungary to understand the context for what she was telling me.
So did those conversations with her have an impact on your writing?
Yes, they did though in ways I wasn’t conscious of. One of my many characters, József Silk, is silent about his experiences for most of his life and both my grandparents are in a sense part of him. I was very affected by my grandfather’s death at the time I was writing (George Baker, 1930-2011). He was an actor (my character is an artist), and there was something about the publicity around his death which I wanted to explore. He was loved by people, but seeing photos of him and hearing his voice on the radio was strange.
Does writing a novel take over your life with a momentum of its own or was it easy to pace your writing as it developed? Over those six years, how did you manage all your commitments?
I think we want our writing to take over but life doesn’t give us that luxury. In a way, you are always searching for the time to write. While you are immersed, it is all you want to talk, think and dream about. The practicalities of research, organising funding and the time it took to arrange things determined the pace of the writing. Characters emerge and become solid and you begin to follow them. Gradually you realise what will happen and what you need to know about them and this takes you down another route.
It feels very visceral, your relationship with your characters. You are almost like a puppeteer, managing and consoling them.
Yes, you spend a lot of time in their company. They are the ones telling their stories. I began with Eva as a narrator but her voice wasn’t coming across. I composed a letter from her to me and she was furious with me as I was taking away the most important person in her life (her grandfather) and then taking away her voice. I realised I had written her in the first person in my notes, but then changed to third person. I moved back to first person. They need to have their own motivation to come to life for me.
There is something about any creative writing that doesn’t follow prescribed rules…You almost have to create your own language for it.
You clearly show a great love of language and imagery in your work. Did you rework some passages more than others or have to cut any of your original draft? If so, was cutting difficult? It is quite a long book!
It was much longer! I have always loved language, and an early influence was reading Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. Reading is one of the great joys of writing. I had a verbosity or exuberance in my early drafts. I find that through that indulgence and process the work emerges. It is then like having a great rock which I can carve away at.
That’s a lovely image!
That has always been how I characterise the course of my writing. Then the book begins to take on life and solidity. I do find fixed word counts troubling. It is 104,000 words now, but was originally 140,000. I had a plot line about Silk’s mother but realised it didn’t connect and wasn’t embedded.
It comes across to me how real it is, writing a novel, writing lives, almost more personal than writing poetry.
There is something about any creative writing that doesn’t follow prescribed rules, so it is hard to discuss the process. You almost have to create your own language for it. I find it hard to describe or adapt the rhythm of my work into someone else’s framework. If someone questions you and asks ‘will that really work?’, you feel your whole imaginative world shudder a bit. So I am quite guarded in a way, especially until I have a full draft. It’s like teaching. You have to be wary about prescribing a way of writing. You have to ask ‘What is your approach?’
Writing is a very solitary act, and teaching is part of a community. You then become part of a living conversation about writing
That is another thing I am interested in. Does your teaching of creative writing help your own writing or vice versa?
It does help in many ways but it takes up your time. Writing is a very solitary act, and teaching is part of a community. You then become part of a living conversation about writing. I have begun to bring my work into my teaching in recent years. I hadn’t previously. It has been interesting. I have brought in all the drafts, hardbacks, paperbacks, proofs and it opens a window into publishing which the students hadn’t known about. Seeing these physical objects energises the conversations about what their life as novelists might be like.
There are so many layers in the novel! I wonder whether readers will pick up on all of them. They are so rich and complex.
I keep meticulous notebooks, and looking back over them helps with editing. Going back to my original intentions helps to generate new ideas. I have around ten notebooks for each novel. I record the season and year at the beginning. They are better than a computer because they are tactile. I always try to encourage my students to bring pen and paper.
How did you plan your research? How do you feel fact and fiction blend in your writing? When you’ve got the bare facts, how do you develop them?
Researching and writing are part of the same thing. In an archive, I am looking for the detail to work out what will happen next. In the Wiener Holocaust Library, there is a collection of pamphlets giving advice for new refugees on how they could adapt to life in Britain, published in the 30’s and 40’s. Finding that box was crucial. This allowed me to shape different responses, played out by the two brothers in the novel, one of whom rejects the call to assimilate. The box of pamphlets enabled me to find material for this.
Were you conscious of writing within a particular genre? What about other works that are concerned with the holocaust?
Whatever you’re writing will speak to other work. To begin with, I read everything I could find, but after a while, endless reading can hamper you from stepping in any direction. I had to stop reading for the novel. Random, disconnected things can be useful. I became interested in Art Spiegelman’s sketch books which were published after Maus (1980), which he used to help him through artists’ and writers’ block and regenerate his creativity. He describes the Holocaust as a shadow which impacted on him all his life (his father was a Holocaust survivor). Some other works which have spoken powerfully to me have been Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces, Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet which really resonated, and Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home. You are like a scavenger. Zadie Smith talks about ‘the magical middle of the novel’ when it feels like everything in the world is related to your novel but you have a filter which you may not be aware of.
Did you have a sense of relief or a ‘low’ when you had finished the novel? Did you need to get on with the next one before exhaustion set in?
That’s an interesting question. There is a sense of loss. I knew what was coming next because I had begun the next novel before finishing Testament. I have now finished the draft but have no formed idea of a third one. It is a new and slightly uncomfortable experience. While writing I began to be aware of different avenues of interest which were feeding into the novel. One, for example, was the act of collecting, artists’ collections and what they had done with them, their approach to them.
Before we talk about the next novel, can I ask about the artists you were looking at? Does the character Silk, as a painter, draw on all those artists, particularly the Whitechapel Boys?
The first influence in my mind was Mark Rothko’s Red paintings. I grew up in London and the Tate Modern Rothko Room was my favourite. I loved the Abstract Expressionists’ indecipherable and unique language. I remember reading Paul Klee‘s writing on his own work, how abstract painting is a submission to a will not your own.
In Testament, Silk’s damaged eyesight is a metaphor for how he will not allow the past to be seen or talked about.
The Silk we first meet as an old man is a difficult character to comprehend and we build a picture of him through the memories of his family members. His experiences as a young man form the body of the novel. In the end, we understand the refrain of his son, ‘Lies, lies lies!’ when we find how many of his secrets impact on his son and granddaughter. What part does secrecy play in the novel? Is it always part of a family’s history, or did the displacement and suffering of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust inevitably result in the dysfunction you explore in Testament?
At book events, many have said that secrecy has also been part of their families. The alternative is often an active remembrance and commemoration, for example when survivors do talks in schools. Silk and his brother represent both these responses. When they have become men, they are not able to hold hands again, which is symbolic of how far they have moved apart.
What is the significance of the fact that Silk can only see the colour blue?
It combines a few different ideas. One element was a description towards the end of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), where the character in the Gulag looks at the sun and sees how beautiful it is. I was struck by his awareness of beauty in the middle of such horror. I also read in the news about the collapse of the mine in Chile, and how when the miners came out, their eyesight had been damaged. In Testament, Silk’s damaged eyesight is a metaphor for how he will not allow the past to be seen or talked about. The colour blue is traditionally the colour of the Danube, a memory of his home which haunts him after he moves to London, so he decides to fill his life with blue.
The female character Zuzka enters the story fairly late in the novel. Her musical talent becomes a symbol of her survival which she later rejects as she refuses to play again. She seems more vulnerable than the other characters. At first we do not see her connection with the two bothers, József and László, but she becomes crucial to the story. Did you find her easy to write?
Her character emerged when I researched the Theresienstadt ghetto camp outside Prague, which was used as a propaganda ‘show’ camp to conceal the realities from the Red Cross. It was a place with a surface of safety and belonging, but with terror behind it. The psychological split in the mind informs the character, and she never fully leaves the camp. Zuzka smiles for others but has no real sense of self left.
Many characters inevitably remain unknown. They are victims, lost family, their fate not always told. Others return surprisingly, such as Dragan who József always believed had sacrificed himself so that József could live. There is often no real closure for all the displaced people. Was this an essential element of the novel for you?
Yes. Dragan was based on a witness report by a man who survived in the same way. This lack of closure was so much part of real families’ lives. The image of the void was strong for me. Whole communities were wiped out. The Holocaust Centre in Budapest has a monument to ‘lost communities’, the villages where no-one returned. The voids in the Berlin Museum are also very powerful, so much of history is a void.
The novel deals with anger and sadness, extraordinary resilience, guilt and shock. There are many harrowing and distressing episodes with detailed accounts of suffering and hardship. Many of the most shocking descriptions of cruelty and degradation stand alone for the reader to experience an undirected reaction. Did you find it difficult to choose the right language, to avoid comment or direction with these extreme situations? Did you feel a responsibility to history as well as to the reader when you wrote these?
This was separate from the character development. All these acts of violence derived from reality and there was no point in making things up or providing false evidence. I felt a responsibility to say what really happened but many of these moments were hard to write. I didn’t think about the reader’s experience while writing these, but like Laurent Binet, writing in HHhH (2010), felt it was dishonest and dishonourable to politely ‘cut away’ from them, when the real people couldn’t cut away from what was happening to them.
Your biographical note mentions that you teach prisoners with the Mass Observation Archive. Readers may be familiar with the original project from the 1930’s to 50’s but may not know about its relaunch in the 1980’s. Could you let us know a bit about it and your involvement?
After teaching on the creative writing MA at the University of Sussex, I joined the Mass Observation Beyond Boxes project, which sought to widen participation in the archive. I delivered creative writing classes in Lewes prison, and the material the men wrote went in to the archive. There were so many vulnerable people and it was a great privilege to be allowed in to their lives.
When I was growing up I was always called ‘a boy’ as I had short hair in a girls’ school. Gender discrimination hasn’t gone away but conversations have become more fluid.
You are now completing a new novel. Can you tell us about its subject and inspiration?
My novel begins in 1703 on the night of the great storm which was seen as a sign of the end of time, God’s wrath. The main characters are Tom West, a smuggling captain, his lover Grace, who wants to be a writer, and her daughter Molly. Tom murders Grace when he believes she has betrayed him and then takes Molly on board his ship and raises her as a boy. The story explores issues of her gender, identity and belonging.
Ending a novel brings a sense of grief. I was scared to finish – have I let the characters down? I finished writing while on a ten-day writers’ stay at Agatha Christie’s house, which was a huge privilege. No wifi, nobody asking anything and no obligation to show anything at the end. When I finished the novel, I just sat in the garden feeling elated, astonished and mournful. I was glad to have had that moment.
Thank you so much for spending the time to talk about your writing and I am really looking forward to reading your new book!
Testament is published by Riverrun (Quercus) and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops. Click here for more information about Kim Sherwood and her work.
For more information about the Mass Observation Archive, click here.
Lucy Writers would like to express our deepest thanks to Kim Sherwood and Miriam Al Jamil for bringing this interview to the platform.