This week’s story, “Permission to Enter,” charts the life of its protagonist, Keisha Blake, and her best friend, Leah Hanwell, neighbors in a housing estate in North West London, from the ages of four to twenty-one. Through a series of numbered vignettes, we watch Keisha’s progression through school and university as she and Leah gradually leave the estate and its expectations behind them. Why did you decide to use this format? Did you enjoy working within the boundaries of these contained sections?
Well, the story is an extract from a novel, and this sectional style only appears towards the end of the book. When I was writing the book I was trying to think about how we experience time. How it really feels to be in time. And the answer ended up being different depending on who or what I was dealing with. In Keisha’s case, she has this belief that life is a meaningful progression towards some ultimate goal—in her case, “success”—and this made the numbered sections the obvious choice. It was also an attempt to force myself into a new mode. I’ve always admired the idea of the “fragment,” but fragments are usually single-voiced—often a monologue of some kind. I can’t write in that singular way, it bores me. I think I wanted to see if I could make a fragmentary third person work. Finally, there is the simple time restraint of having a kid. Four hours a day is as much as I had. I didn’t have the time or inclination for sixty-page chapters. The idea of writing at any great length became absurd.
The driving forces of this story are class, sex, and education. When Keisha goes away to university, she changes her first name to Natalie, which is something we realize in passing when Leah comes to visit and stumbles over this new name. The story is full of other signifiers of class and status, but they never overwhelm the narrative. Did you ever have to stop yourself from adding more details, or did you always know when to pull back?
I used to have this envious feeling towards the type of writer who never gives a second thought to whether their readers might not all be white and middle class and highly educated. That’s the whole world to them. All their characters sound like the author and like each other and like the reader. It seemed to me you could write so much more cleanly and stylishly when you didn’t have to try and think yourself into many places at the same time. Of course, it probably isn’t easier—the grass always looks greener elsewhere. Anyway, in my situation, every time I write a sentence I’m thinking not only of the people I ended up in college with but my siblings, my family, my school friends, the people from my neighborhood. I’ve come to realize that this is an advantage, really: it keeps you on your toes. And it seems clear to me that these little varietals of voice and lifestyle (bad word, but I can’t think of another) are fundamentally significant. They’re not just decoration on top of a life; they’re the filter through which we come to understand the world. To be born into money is ontologically different than to be born without it, for example.
Once I get started, I could write a thousand pages solely concerning these little differences, but I’m always trying to fight that instinct. I’m not really that interested in social satire. I’m more interested in language. So you have to exercise some self-control. No form of writing—traditionally realist or otherwise—can hope to include everything. I really wanted this novel to be a hundred and eighty pages, but in the end I couldn’t manage it. Writing short is a thousand times harder than writing long! Whatever style you have is dictated by what you learn to leave out.
“Permission to Enter” is, as you say, taken from your new novel, “NW,” which will be published in September. Much of the novel takes place over one spring and summer, when Natalie and Leah, now in their mid-thirties and each apparently happily married and professionally employed, both find themselves engaged in forms of secretive, potentially dangerous revolt against their domestic lives. Did you have a clear idea of the trajectory of the novel when you started working on it? Did Leah and Natalie ever surprise you as adults, once you’d released them from their adolescence on the estate?
They began as adults. Actually, it was just Leah and her husband and a girl who turns up at their house. For a very long time that was all there was. Natalie was a surprise—so were most of the other characters. This whole section concerning their adolescence was a surprise—I never planned to write it. The book was written without a plan. Early on I decided to let myself be led by whatever appeared in front of me as I was writing it. Sometimes that was a book (“The Souls of Black Folk,” or a little book on existentialism found in a junk store) and sometimes it was a song or a random event (an argument overheard in a playground). I just started to think of the book as a collection of found items, and tried to pick them up and integrate them, letting the novel organize itself as I went along. The strange thing about it was that though it is the least “planned” of my novels—I hadn’t any idea for a plot—it’s the book that has ended up feeling most “planned.”
The novel is largely set in Kilburn, in North West London, where you grew up. You’ve been splitting your time between New York and London for the past few years. Did you find the way you thought or wrote about London changed depending on what city you were in? Could you imagine writing about New York in the same way you’ve written about London?
The boring and obvious answer is that I could write about London with the most passion and longing when I was away from it.
I’ll never know New York as I know London. One of the reasons Nabokov is so unusual is that he learnt to love America as much—if not more—than the Russia of his childhood. I think to genuinely have two countries, as a writer, is a very rare thing. I don’t expect to manage it.
The sixth section of the story, “Some Answers,” features the young Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell’s answers to a questionnaire, including their favorite bands, films, and books. Do you know what answers Natalie and Leah would give to those questions today?
I think they’re both people who tend to feel that their real life occurred between the ages of about twelve and eighteen. Neither of them seem to read books any more or keep up with music or film or any of the things that preoccupied them as children. So maybe their answers would be largely nostalgic. “Jane Eyre,” “Electric Relaxation,” “The Color Purple,” the Velvet Underground—that sort of thing. Whatever the answers, most of them would be untrue, or an attempt to impress whoever was reading them. Although they’d probably still prefer to be deaf.